Friday, October 31, 2008

What Will They Think of Next?: Solid Gold USB Drive

What do you do when the economy is in the dumps? You spend money frivolously on things that you don't need. OK, so a USB flash drive is certainly a useful accessory to have. But would you spend $600 on one?

A company called Super Talent Technology has introduced a limited-edition 18-Carat, solid gold USB drive called the Pico-C that it deems the "ultimate executive gift". Sure, it has neat features like a water-resistant design, ample 8 GB capacity, encryption software, and support for 200x (30 MB/sec.) transfer speeds. But is the use of gold really worth the extra, oh, $550 you're spending on the gadget? Oh wait: it also comes with a serialized Certificate of Authenticity and black velvet jewelry box; and you can have your name/logo laser-etched onto the device at no additional charge. Now that changes everything! (Insert sarcasm here).

I apologize to those who think this is the coolest thing ever, but I just don't get it. Perhaps there will be plenty of gift-wrapped holiday USB drives under the trees of IT geeks everywhere. But I can't imagine any gal (or guy, for that matter!) opening up a box with a gold USB drive and declaring in awe to their loved one or boss: "oh my, you shouldn't have!"
Nevertheless, if you think you know someone who would like one, they're available by pre-order for a limited time, and require 3-4 weeks lead time.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Do You Outsource Your Call Centre?

Everybody does it. Outsource call centre services in order to keep business costs down. Countries like India and, according to a recent report from Info-Tech Research Group, the Philippines, are popular countries to look to. But in the grand scheme of things, is this really good for business?

Reduced costs is the obvious advantage: it costs less to pay a team of call centre reps in an outsourced country than it would locally in Canada, or even the U.S. But what are the potential drawbacks? The risk of poor customer service is certainly one of them. Another concern that shouldn't be taken lightly, though, is the loss of jobs in one's own country. Sure, outsourcing a call centre can result in significantly cheaper operating costs, but if a large portion of your target customer segment can't afford to buy your products or services because they are finding it difficult to hold a job, what good has outsourcing accomplished?

In addition to adding jobs to the economy, keeping a call centre local also has many other advantages. For one, agents can work directly with the sales, marketing, and even research and development departments in order to create a holistic solution that serves the customer's best interests. The lines of communication both ways can be much more open; and internal staff can more easily monitor who's talking to the customers, and how customer service issues are being handled. Plus, from a consumer perspective, let's face it: knowing that you're speaking to someone who lives in the same country that you do, regardless of what that country might be, is always reassuring. Someone anywhere outside of Canada might not understand how critical a situation it is that you have all your buddies over to watch the hockey play-offs and your flat-panel isn't working!

Nevertheless, many companies continues to outsource their call centres, and reap the benefits. Some end up with reputations for horrible customer service, while others are applauded for their efforts, no matter where the cell centre might be located. Info-Tech claims that the Philippines is now the second-largest call centre outsourcing player (behind India), and is known for offering a high level of service due to "educated English-speaking agents with accents similar to their North American callers."

The primary focus, of course, is that the customer's issues or questions are always answered adequately, and in a timely manner; no matter who ends up on the other end of the line or where they're located.

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VCR And The End Of An Era

By Lee Distad

JVC announced this week that it has ceased production of VCRs. Once existing global inventory is sold through, that’s it.

This is especially newsworthy not only because VHS was such an enduring and successful format, having sold over 900 million units since 1976, but also because I (and I’m sure lots of other people) thought that the company had stopped making them long ago! Granted, it’s not a complete extinction. JVC will continue to make DVD/VCR combos for the near term.

At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, like many other lifers in the CE business, I have warm memories associated with VCRs. The first piece of electronics I ever sold was a Sony VHS VCR. Back in those days, you could make a tidy living just on the commissions from VCR sales. Tapes, too. I still remember pitching the advantages of higher grade and thus more expensive VHS tapes when selling them by the case.

For that matter, as late as the year 1999, I was still selling as many as 100 Betamax cassettes a week, believe it or not. I had four long-time clients in my client binder who were die-hard Betamax owners, and every time my store got a delivery of tapes, I would call each of them up. Whichever of them got to the store first would buy up the lot! They knew each other and all knew the score. It was like a little game between them.

A lot of years have passed since then, and we’ve seen so much technological progress in CE in even the last five years alone. It makes me wonder what technology I’m going to get all sentimental about 20 years from now.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Back in the Swing of Things

As you may have observed, I'm back from vacation and back into the swing of things. So: was I able to stay away from connecting online? For the most part, yes, although I will admit to checking in every now and then when I was able to latch on to a WiFi signal. But that doesn't mean that technology was completely out of my life!

Oddly enough, probably the most useful gadget I brought along with me was a Lifepop speaker bag. As faithful blog readers might recall, I mentioned these bags in one of my very first blog posts back in May 2007 entitled "Things You Never Thought You'd Need Nor Want". So what is this thing? It's a funky, retro-styled and oversized bag with two speakers and an amp built right into it. Pop in four "AA" batteries, connect any portable player that has a headphone jack, and enjoy music anywhere. My desired spot was the beach. I loaded up the bag with my beach towel, sunscreen, and other necessities, along with my SanDisk Sansa MP3 player (my significant other brought along his iPod as well). We placed the bag between us and enjoyed the tunes while basking in the sun. When a few friends joined us, we all got to enjoy the same music and chat with one another instead of each listening with his own pair of headphones in solitude. I was floored by how many comments I received on the bag from passers-by; many beach-goers even expressed their disappointment when we were packing up to go each day since they were enjoying our music! Who knew.

As promised, I did read through John's recommended reading: Hug Your Customers, and like he, found myself observing the quality of customer service everywhere I went. It is truly baffling to see how many people just don't seem to care, simply hanging around each day for the paycheque and taking whatever sale they can get without actually trying to add value to that sale. I tried on clothing at a store with virtually no help from a sales associate despite how many times they must have seen me go in and out of a change room. We sat on a patio for 45-minutes having dinner without the waiter coming back once to check on us and see if we needed anything. While I did end up buying something at the clothing store, we didn't stay for dessert, coffee, or additional drinks at the restaurant in question. This wasn't because we didn't want any, but simply because we didn't want to give them any more of our business than they deserved.

But on the flip side, I also observed some great "hugging". At a high-end hotel, for example, the concierge came by the pool with everything from freezies (ahh, memories) to paper cups of Aloe Vera to keep guests cool. A couple lounging there requested a pack of cigarettes. "We don't sell any in the hotel," answered the concierge, "but I'd be happy to run down to the store and grab some for you." Now that is hugging, despite the request!

Now, I know what you're thinking. "This is a high-end hotel so obviously they're going to offer such services!" That's what you'd expect vs. somewhere that hires a part-time student just looking for some cash. But there are ways, albeit much simpler, that customer service can be improved across every industry, whether it's fast food or low-end clothing retail. Heck, if this wasn't the case, McDonald's never would have started advertising "free smiles"! It might not be on the same level as the high end hotel of the high-end clothing store John went to; but every little bit counts, right?

On that note, we'd love to hear your "customer service stories from hell" or, conversely, your stories of praise. Feel free to comment here; or send me a note directly at

As for me, I enjoyed my time in South Beach, Miami. Here are some recommended spots if you ever plan to go (ahh, if we only ever had a trade show there!):

Delano Hotel - it's gorgeous, and offers one of the best Mohitos I've ever had!

Wet Willie's - this isn't the classiest joint, and not for the faint of heart. But if you like fruity, slushie-like concoctions, it might be worth a stop.

Joe's Stone Crab - I have been to both this location and the one in Las Vegas (Caesar's Palace). Both times, both the food and service were impeccable.

Big Pink - It's a local, family-oriented, comfort food-type restaurant with massive portions, tables squeezed so close together you're joining the conversations of everyone around you, and is always packed. But it's worth it.

Beach by the Loew's Hotel - if you rent a chair and umbrella here, they'll actually serve you food and drinks on the beach. Nice!

Mango's - This night bar has live bands playing salsa and other kinds of tunes. It's known to attract lots of tourists.

Starbucks on Lincoln Rd. - You can grab a latte and sit down at a computer station where you can preview songs, and compile your own custom-made CD for instant purchase.

Sushi Samba - great sushi, and the wait staff (mainly men) are amazingly attentive.

Until next year!

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Recession, or Minor Setback?

Aside from the pending election, the biggest buzz nowadays is about the existence (or perceived existence) of a "recession". But are things really that bad north of the border here in Canada? Many would beg to differ.

An interesting article in the National Post written by Jacqueline Thorpe and Paul Vieira quotes the governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, as stating that the "sky is not falling" in this country, adding that while we should prepare for "sluggish growth", we do not "have the imbalances in our economy that other economies have going into this time of difficulty."

This shouldn't be taken to mean that Canadians will skate through this time completely unaffected. Companies will need to scale back certain niceties, and make minor adjustments until the situation blows over (and let's face it: it will blow over eventually). But the important thing is to remain as close as possible to "business as usual". After all, when things get back to what many would call "normal", it'll be those who kept their head high through the tough times that benefit the most.

What's more, many are confident that the tech sector specifically is somewhat "recession-proof", if not at least recession-"resistant". TWICE Magazine claims that U.S. TV manufacturers are "cautiously optimistic" that sales will continue to be strong through the upcoming holiday season, despite what's going on in the economy.

The reason is obvious: if you cut costs by not eating out, going shopping, or heading out to see a movie, what do you do? Stay at home! You can take the kids out for dinner and a movie every Friday night, or invest in a home theatre system (and some Ben & Jerrys!) at home that can be enjoyed for years and years to come instead of just one night. As research firm Futuresource Consulting puts it, these items offer much better "value-for-money", along with "tangible benefits." On the TV end, the only cut-back Futuresource has observed is in size: it seems that rather than fork over the extra dough for 50"+-sized panels, customers appear to be, more often than before, opting for 32" and 42" sets instead.

The optimism doesn't just relate to the TV industry, though. It also goes for computer-related products, and even video games. Sure, it isn't healthy to stay seated on the couch every weekend just because you don't want to go out and spend money. But why not watch TV while on the treadmill? Or play some Nintendo Wii games with the family instead of heading out to Chuck E Cheese? Bottom line: there is a way that consumers can reduce frivolous spending that can also benefit the CE industry.

Nevertheless, retailers, manufacturers, and distributors are, and will continue to do what they have to do in order to be cautious and remain profitable. I've seen several e-mail notifications that advise of price increases due to the "falling Canadian currency", or that regretfully announce the cessation of certain incentive programs for the time being. C'est la vie, as they say. But the most important thing to consider is to keep your business strong by whatever means necessary. Otherwise, you'll be eating everyone else's dust once things pick up again.

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Put Down Those Cell Phones, Ontario Drivers!

It's all over the news that the Ontario government is looking to enact previously-discussed legislation banning the use of handheld cell phones and other gadgets sooner than expected. Ontario would become the fourth province (to my knowledge) to restrict the use of gadgetry in a vehicle: Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Quebec already have such rules in place. But from the sounds of it, Ontario wants to take things one step further, restricting the use of any electronic device: from portable GPS units to satellite radio and other items.

I want to first make clear that I agree with the ban, as do most Ontarians (it seems), regardless of the fact that many citizens admit to their own guilt in chatting while driving. I already own a Bluetooth speakerphone device, which I prefer using anyway (my arm gets tired after holding the phone up to my ear for extended periods of time!) But I will admit to checking my e-mails every so often, and the risk of getting a ticket will certainly deter me from doing so.

But what I don't agree with is the attempt to ban drivers from doing anything in the car that relates to an electronic device. As many people have asked: where do you draw the line? Can you get a ticket for taking a sip from your coffee cup? From constantly flicking the preset buttons on your car's built-in stereo system? From chatting to the kid's in the back seat through the rear view mirror? Singling out electronic gadgets just doesn't make sense. Yes, any activity that is clearly impairing someone's driving should be addressed. But isn't this already covered under the "careless" or "imprudent" driving charge?

Probably the dumbest argument I heard (via a TV news program) when asked if the ban would include a car's built-in gadgetry, like navigation, was that it's "better made and thus safer". If I'm reaching over to push a button on my car's built in stereo vs. my iPod, or a windshield-mounted portable GPS via a dash-mounted built-in navigation system, what's the difference?

Regardless of the odd stipulations, the government did assure that cops wouldn't be out and about nabbing thousands of drivers every time they see someone pick up a call. But keep in mind while you're scooting down the highways and side streets that officers will soon certainly be able to do so. And retailers: brace yourself for an influx of Bluetooth headset and speakerphone sales. If the situation in the Quebec market is any indication, Ontarians will be buying them up like hotcakes.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Could Bond Put a Sour Taste in the Mouths of Blu-ray Owners?

Is James Bond giving Blu-ray a bad name? Reports are flooding the 'net that James Bond Blu-ray DVDs from a new collection are failing to play in many Blu-ray players, leading to customer frustration and anger. This isn't good news for a format that's only just begun to resonate with the average buyer.

According to various online forums, like Amazon and AVS Forum, the new DVDs, which include titles like Die Another Day, Live and Let Die, and From Russia With Love, reportedly begin to play but then cut out part way through; get stuck in the menu; or just lead to a black screen. This has been reported from owners of a variety of Blu-ray players from a number of manufacturers; although it appears from comments that the discs play just fine on a PlayStation 3 gaming console (which has a built-in Blu-ray player). I can't attest to the issues from personal experience since I haven't tried the DVDs myself. But given the high number of angry customers posting online, it appears that an issue does indeed disc with at least a few of the titles in a few players. However, many cite that a firmware upgrade will rectify the problem.

The Bond franchise is hugely popular, so there have likely been major sales of these titles. Will these issues turn people off of Blu-ray? While a firmware upgrade might eventually solve the playback issue, it doesn't solve the initial frustration of curling up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn only to watch a black screen. Luckily, I gather from sifting through the comments that some consumers are forgiving.

"My positive experience with so many other discs gives me optimistic confidence that the problem with these 6 discs will soon be a fading bad memory," says one commenter on However, he's obviously an early-adopter and technophile, claiming to already own upwards of 100 Blu-ray discs.

Other buyers are unfortunately not so forgiving.

"The end result is a big fat black eye for Blu-ray," chimes in another buyer. "The Blu-ray Disc Association, the hardware manufacturers, and the content producers need to get their act together."

One techy reader on AVS Forum claims that these issues are the very reason he won't recommend Blu-ray to "ordinary people". "The worst part is just because these player's firmware can be upgraded, the studios think it's okay to break compatibility at will," he says. "It's not like they can't test these discs on the available players. There has to eventually come a point where they expect the mass market to be able to buy Blu-ray and they will have to freeze the feature set to what works on all players in the marketplace."

On a positive note, all those who did manage to get the discs playing cite impressive video quality and great sound.

Bottom line: it's clearly beneficial both visually and audibly to make use of the Blu-ray format, despite any one-off issues that might occur during these relatively early stages. Remember: HDMI didn't come out of the gate perfect either, but it has quickly become the de facto standard in home A/V connectivity.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

HD Downloads Taking Over, Hurry Up Canada!

By: Lee Distad

What a difference a year makes. Last year, anytime I wrote a column talking about the imminence of HD downloads, I’d get hate mail and comments telling me “It’ll never happen, too much bandwidth, too expensive, blah blah blah!” Now, when I mention alternate methods of digital delivery like kiosk-based downloads to flash media I get hate mail and comments that say, “You mean I have to go to a store? How retro. I’ll wait for downloads, thanks!”

On demand HD downloads are a reality, and gaining ground on other media options, when you consider the negativity some analysts are forecasting for Blu-ray sales this Holiday season. Download company Vudu has not only launched their HDX 1080p download service, they also just announced that they’ve signed up over 1000 custom install dealers in the US to sell and install the VUDU XL set-top box, which features 1TB of hard drive capacity, control system compatibility and extended networking functionality. If that doesn’t make movie lovers and technophiles alike slobber in anticipation, I don’t know what will!

In the meantime, we in Canada have to sit on our hands and wait. There are a lot of great things I love about being Canadian, but being late to the party for technological innovations is one thing that chafes. Still, good things come to those who wait, and once Vudu and other competitors jump through the regulatory hoops that our friends at the CRTC throw in front of them, we’ll be all set.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's With All The Popups?

By: Lee Distad

Online news is my lifeblood, both for CE as well as for general business and finance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I subscribe to more than a dozen newsletters that arrive every morning in my Inbox. On top of that, every morning my first cup of coffee coincides with a quick skim of my RSS feeds, and the various blogs I read. Information overload is a very real issue, which is why generally I quickly skim the headlines, only drilling down to take a closer look at things of immediate or direct interest.

I was deeply annoyed yesterday when I followed a headline from a daily US CE business newsletter to their website, only to be barraged by popup advertising. Are you kidding me, what is this, Web 1.0 in 1998? I would expect a popup farm from a shady Baltic ex-soviet state bit torrent site, but to visit a well-regarded legitimate news site and have my popup blocker work so hard that my laptop actually slowed down is ridiculous. They can’t even claim that they were hacked, since enabling the popups allowed me to see that they were ads for mainstream consumer goods, matching the ads on their site.

I’m all in favour of making a buck on the Internet, but the central principle to that is to not drive away your readers. There’s a reason why popup blockers are a cardinal feature on web browsers: it’s because web surfers hate popups. If your website is still using popups, take it from me, you aren’t making any friends. In addition, there’s a saying in the marketing business that “50% of my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.” I guarantee that if you’re an advertiser, and you’re been talked into buying popup spots, you’d be better off piling all that money in the middle of your office and setting it on fire.
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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is This Not The Age Of Information?

By: Lee Distad

I don’t think you can argue that today our entertainment media has to cope with our need for instant gratification. No one I know watches TV shows when they air, they either watch them on their PVR at their convenience, or download them to a device, or watch them online. If you’ve got an itch for celebrity gossip, you head straight to the Internet, and you’ve got the dirt you crave in moments. That applies to pretty much anything these days: when I wanted to know when the new Fall shows started, I didn’t wait for a trailer during commercials to tell me (come on, who watches commercials?), I went to the Wikipedia entries for my shows.

My point, and I did have one, is that after having CTV and CBS move the cop drama Flashpoint around a few times, the mid-season Sunday night slot has been Law and Order reruns for the past couple of weeks, while still being tagged as Flashpoint in the Guide. Curious about the fate of a great new show, I surfed around and a cursory check came up empty. According to Wikipedia, CBS and CTV both bought season two, but no word on when the final four episodes of season one will air. CTV’s website is silent since last month on the subject. On the CBS website, I can watch every episode aired to date, but no word on the show’s future.

After about five minutes, I decided that it’s just a TV show, and I’m not going to spend the rest of my day tracking down the factoid I want. Still, I find it surprising when there must be answer, but the PR flacks at the networks haven’t already put it out there. Today, online news and feedback provides a level of intimacy between content providers and consumers that’s two way and instantaneous. That’s a plus for everybody. If I’m lucky, someone from CBS or CTV will pipe up and clue me in.

Photo Credit: © 2008 CBS Interactive.
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Monday, October 20, 2008

What Now SIRIUS?

By: Lee Distad
Something that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the CE trade media is that since the merger between satellite radio companies Sirius and XM, the combined stock SIRI has been absolutely hammered on the Street, hitting an all-time low last Friday of $0.36 a share, from a pre-merger price of $2.50.

Granted the equity markets have taken a beating worldwide, and every CE and tech company has seen their market cap take sometimes-severe haircuts. At issue for Sirius in particular is concern over their ability to grow their subscriber base, as well as to be able to service the debt issues that are coming due early next year. Talk about avoiding delisting from NASDAQ by engineering a reverse split – exchanging shareholders’ multiple shares for one share at a combined valuation, something that seldom goes well, have further alienated shareholders.

On the CE business front, given how well CE manufacturers have played ball with Sirius (not to mention XM), and the millions of devices in homes and cars that are Sirius-equipped, while it’s still remote, it would be a damn shame to see them go under.

Then again, talking to reps for the various HiFi brands, consumer feedback seems to indicate that Sirius is more popular for mobile applications, than home audio. According to a couple of sources at the big Japanese audio companies, Ethernet audio has proven to be a more popular feature on their AV receivers than Sirius.

What do you think? If Sirius goes under, will you notice? Let us know in the comments.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

First Cracks Showing In The Canadian CE?

By: Lee Distad

We all know that a rising tide raises all boats. When the sun is shining on the housing market, you see erst while contractors getting into the business, whether as trades, custom CE installers, or even as homebuilders. But as the saying goes, adversity is a greater teacher than success. As the economy turns, and the housing situation cools off, that’s when we find out who really has their act together, and who was just in it for the short term.

One of the best things about my job is being plugged into dealers and vendors all over Canada and the US, and being able to get a big-picture view of our industry that sometimes challenges what network news tells us. It’s clear when talking to US dealers that the outlook is mixed: while there are plenty of depressed regions, there is still an equal or greater number of areas reporting that they are still doing well. So far, the outlook in Canada has been insulated from much of the gloom in the US, but that could yet change.

Consider this story 1 part schadenfreude, and 2 parts valuable lesson. Word just came to me about a CE integrator in a large Canadian city whose business just went into free fall (don’t bother to email me and ask who and where; I’m not telling). They find themselves in a bind because their sales funnel of new deals has been dried up for six months, and their cash flow is running on the progress payments from existing jobs. If you’re a long time business owner, maybe you’ve been there, and you’re cringing as you read this. I know that I winced more than once as the story was related to me.

That’s not to say that all of us in Canada are doomed. Don’t forget, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, now might be a good time to take a good look at your own company: what does your sales funnel look like? How hard are your sales people prospecting? Are your installers running a tight ship, or is there a lot of slack on the jobsites that needs to be reeled in? Do you even know these answers without having to check?

By the time you see a problem on your QuickBooks, it might be too late. The right time to tidy up your operations is always now.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Media Servers Past and Present

By: Lee Distad

If you’re paying attention to trends in CE, you don’t have to be Nostradamus, nor know Moore’s Law to see that Media Servers are rapidly careening towards mass-market consumer price points.

Take the sheer number of competitors who have sprung up. At CEDIA Expo last month there were twice as many companies at the trade show listed under “media server” as in 2007. That alone tells you which way the wind is blowing, as well as the kind of money at stake in taking media servers mainstream.

At the same time, I have to wonder how long the players at the luxury end of the market will be able to hold onto their cache as high-end toys. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very familiar with the features and reliability that differentiates products like Kaleidescape from it’s competitors, but software capabilities and processing power in mainstream PC’s are catching up. To be honest, I'm kind of glad I'm no longer on the custom install front line pitching media servers that cost $50K or more to the rich and famous.

While the tangible difference between an economy car and a luxury automobile are as obvious now as they were in Henry Ford’s time, computer hardware and software is quickly usurped by products that are newer, faster, better, and cheaper.

Let’s not forget the DYI element: home made servers. Just surfing around at various online computer vendors, I figure I could build my own movie server with retail PC parts, starting with a 600 DVD capacity, and upgradeable for under $2000. In reality, by the time I quit procrastinating and got around to it, it would be less. What do you think a Terabyte is going to cost next year? Easy answer: less than it does now. However bear in mind, that homemade solutions require hours and hours of futzing and troubleshooting, and are anything but plug-and-play.

At the moment, the battle between the MPAA and Real Networks over the Real DVD archiving software is just beginning to heat up. In the meantime, while the movie studios try and turn back the clock, you can imagine that win or lose, Real Networks isn’t going to be the last software company to try to put powerful tools in the consumer’s hands. At the moment, US legal precedent leaves custom channel integrators in the clear; let’s hope that continues.

I don’t mean to come across as being negative about media servers going mainstream, far from it. I think that they represent a huge opportunity for the CE industry as they grow in popularity. I’m just suggesting that there are risks and pitfalls that you need to consider if you’re going to get on board.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

TrackItBack Takes It Back

By: Lee Distad

For those that don’t know, TrackItBack is a lost-and-found service for small electronics. Customers purchase small foil stickers with a serial number, and register their iPods, phones, and other small devices with TrackItBack. If lost, the sticker encourages the finder to contact TrackItBack, who pays the finder a reward, and reunites the lost device with its owner, at no further charge beyond the original cost of the sticker. I vaguely remember registering a Palm Zire three or four years ago that I’m pretty sure is now sitting in a drawer in my filing cabinet, but that’s neither here nor there.

Because I’m on their mailing list, last week I received an email from TrackItBack founder Jason Wagner. It was an impassioned mea culpa: Apparently, earlier this year TrackItBack changed their service from lifetime coverage to annual coverage, and instituted a renewal fee. It appears that the company received Krakatoa-like blowback from their customers. The email was a heartfelt apology and an announcement that effective immediately, all of their current customers and new customers will once again receive lifetime coverage on all of their registered TrackItBack items.

The lesson here is that as soon as you forget what your business is, you’re screwed. Change is both good and often necessary, but you can’t undertake it lightly, and you certainly can’t make sweeping changes in how your business works without considering the most important part: how it will affect your customers. If you do decide to alienate your existing loyal customers and search for bigger better ones, I sure hope your new plan really does bring in the new ones you’re hoping for. If things don’t go quite the way you planned, you can always apologize to your customers, and if you’re really, really lucky, they’ll forgive you. Requests to TrackItBack for further comment went unanswered, but I hope their realignment with their core values pays off for them.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Trade Journalism vs. Public Relations: Where is the Line Drawn?

By: Lee Distad

So I was hard at work today when I received an email from a dealer I know with a fairly direct request. They wanted to know if I would write an expose on a now-ex vendor that gave them a bum steer; his experience was in direct contrast with the positive press his nemesis receives, and he wanted his voice to be heard.

As it happens, it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this; sometimes an angry CE dealer copies me into an email thread with their vendor and uses it as leverage against them. Not that I condone extortion, but sometimes the threat of bad press gets the dealer what they want.

It’s worth noting that my correspondent pointed to the perception that all we do in the trade media is say nice things about manufacturers. I know that in corresponding with mainstream journalists, many think that we don’t dig up stories, that all we do is write gushing reviews and paraphrase press releases. Yet that’s just not true at all. For example: I was the first to break the story earlier this year about Best Buy recruiting finance professionals to rejuvenate their Venture Capital arm. The story ran in the American CE trade media, and when it broke in a major daily newspaper a week later, the journalists who wrote their own story gave me zero credit for having the scoop. If I still sound a little bitter about that, I guess I am.

I have to argue that doing CE trade journalism is totally different from being a publicist. It’s the job of the PR professionals to promote their manufacturer’s products. It’s the job of trade media to report news. A new Blu-ray player is news for us to report; it’s the publicist’s job to talk up the product.

Certainly, the two professions dialogue and work together, but it’s the media’s job to report on the facts, and that means if a product or a company is in trouble, we report on that too. A struggling company that shall remain nameless has recently been displeased with reports of its difficulties and recently started make angry, litigious noises about the press it receives. My response was that if they’re struggling, that’s news; if they’re doing well, that’s news too. If they want to read something positive, try turning a profit first.

Do personal opinions enter into trade journalism? Certainly. But if I think a product or service sucks, I’ll back it up with facts and experience, and tell readers why. If that opens up a dialogue with people in the industry who disagree, well that’s even better for everyone. The better informed our readers are, the better off we all are as an industry.

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Is Your Business Ready for Retirees?

The “baby boomer” population is growing, but are businesses taking this into account when planning for the future? According to a recent study conducted by The Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), most don’t, despite that fact that 20% or more will face employee retirement within the next five years.

Of the remaining companies in the study, 15 per cent say up to 30 per cent of their workforce will retire in five years; and 8 per cent expect up to 40 per cent will hit retirement age. Despite this knowledge, 23 per cent of companies admit to being “poorly prepared”, while 60 per cent feel they’re “somewhat prepared”. Those that are somewhat prepared may have bought themselves more time as Canadian’s stomach an economic meltdown that has seen Canadian stocks drop 30.6% since January 1st. Those that thought they were retiring may be working for another few years in hope of their investment portfolios recover.

Statistics Canada reports that 15 per cent of Canadians are now 55 and older; and, for the first time, half are over the age of 40. In less than 10 years, one in five people in the workforce will be between 55 and 64.

What’s more, the study refers to a pending “talent shortage” that will leave companies looking for worthwhile staff.

How are you prepared to handle retiree-fever and talent shortages?

In all, 627 HR professionals were surveyed for the study.

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Lots Still To Be Thankful For

By: Lee Distad

If you’re a newshound, and especially if you have an interest in financial and business news as I do, things look pretty grim. Turn on the TV, pick up a paper, or go to the web and you’ll see headlines warning of impending doom across a broad swath of sectors: Banks are failing, the price of oil is dropping, container ship charter rates have dropped to nearly zero, and so on. And retail, oh lord; the prognosis that on-air pundits are giving for retail and the upcoming Christmas selling season is beyond terrible.

Still, let’s take time today to focus on what’s important, and better yet what we still have to be thankful for. How about some perspective to start with: this isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a weak US dollar, fluctuating energy prices, and spiralling inflation. It’s not the end of the world yet, this too shall pass. Let’s be thankful that the exposure of Canadian chartered banks to sub-prime asset-backed securities has been minor. On the same vein, let’s be thankful that lending standards in Canada have been more rigorous in the last five years than our neighbours to the south, so that we’re less likely to see a tidal wave of mortgage defaults here. On a more industry-centric note, let’s also be thankful that Canadian consumers still have an appetite for cool shiny toys like flat-panel TV’s, smart phones, and in-car navigation. This Christmas may not be the best one ever, but it’s unlikely to be bleak for Canadian retailers.

Lastly, let’s all remember that the reason why Canadian Thanksgiving is a month earlier than American Thanksgiving is because we have more to be thankful for.

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Gordon Brockhouse

The news headlines over the past couple of weeks have been anything but cheery: stock-market meltdowns all over the world, failures of once-mighty financial institutions, a tumbling loonie, bitterly divisive elections in Canada and the U.S. So it’s understandable if Canadians head into this holiday weekend with a high degree of anxiety.

I think we’ll all be happier on Tuesday morning if we can stop worrying for a bit. The fact is we have a lot to be thankful for on Canadian thanksgiving.

Even if our portfolios have taken a shellacking, we still have a functioning economy: one that added 107,000 new jobs in September, when the meltdown began. Our own industry is making a contribution, as you can see by the story on our main page about Future Shop hiring 6,000 seasonal associates for the holidays. Regardless of where the markets go next week, the vast majority of us will still be working and providing for our families.

Of course, many individuals and families have been hurt by the economic turmoil. Thankfully, our blessed country has the institutions and generosity to assist those who aren’t so fortunate.

Even if we’re witnessing two unusually nasty elections, the mere fact that we have elections is another reason to give thanks (and to get out and vote on Tuesday!). Even if we don’t always think well with our leaders, we get to choose them and hold them to account. We have constitutions that let us change governments peacefully, rather than at the barrel of a gun.

There are many other reasons to give thanks: family and friends to name two of the most important.

So instead of worrying, let’s all do what we’re supposed to do on Thanksgiving holiday weekend, which is 1) relax and have some fun, 2) give thanks, and 3) eat a really big turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers from the Marketnews team!

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Of Course I'm Green. Just Don't Look In My Driveway

By: John Thomson

I have a theory that anyone who embraces the green movement exclusively for altruistic reasons has either got way too much money or has no money at all. Us folks digging in the middle tend to be motivated by either what will save us money or what will make us money. Such motivation of course becomes our green contribution; we change light bulbs, turn down the thermostat, water our lawns only on Wednesday, eat local foods, recycle and ride our bikes whenever we can. We run our business with a green influence to attract new customers and show existing customers we are in tune with our global crisis. In publishing, that means using vegetable inks, removing gloss and UV coated papers, making sure that we print only copies that are read so we take longer to get to the landfill and so on. But where my green thinking has always fallen by the wayside is with cars.

I just can’t drive a Prius and to date hybrids in my opinion, have only managed to target the “I’m saving the world” guy rather than real car guys. Where’s the passion of putting your foot on the pedal, or banking into a great country road turn? I used to drive a MINI Cooper S and folks would say “Oh good for you, putting the planet first and driving a little car,” well HELLO! The way I drove that thing like a 16 year old boy, had my miles per gallon stats closely resembling a Hummer! My dirty little secret of now driving a big engine gas guzzler may however be coming to an end, as I have had a “show em’ both sides Mini Wheat” moment.

You know those sexy Aston Martin DB9’s that keep blowing up in James Bond movies? Perhaps you have met the ultra cool BMW Z8 at a stop sign. Well that’s the past work of Danish designer Henrik Fisker. His latest offering is called the Fisker Karma. ( This four-seater has a top speed of 125 miles per hour, does zero to 60 in six seconds and looks like the driver should be wearing a Canali suit rather than dirty Birkenstocks.

Fisker teamed up with Quantum Technologies, yielding a car that is the same height as a Porsche 911, is as wide as a 7-series BMW and as long as an C-Class Mercedes. And no stupid rear wheel covers like that awful, awful Honda thing. Running on lithium-ion batteries, charged for around 8 hours, the Karma will travel 50 miles at zero emissions. Then a gearless gas engine kicks in to keep the battery charged for another 300 miles. The roof is one big solar panel. How sweet is that! Today’s hybrids are about fuel economy. The Karma is about using no fuel at all. The goal is to sell 15,000 Karma’s a year at $80,000 a pop. That’s nothing! Stop being selfish and think about the planet! Al Gore gets his later this year. Me, I’ll just keep on dreaming, but I knew I was smart to wait.

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Customer Service Redux

By: Lee Distad

Last week, John Thomson, the Associate Publisher of Marketnews & here’s how! Magazines wrote a fantastic blog post entitled “Customer Service – Doesn’t Everyone Behave Like This?” about his refreshingly positive experience in an American retail store. In addition to thanking him for writing it, I wanted to expand on his thesis a little with my own opinions.

One of my old mentors in big box retail liked to say to us “retail is easy: you’re selling stuff to people!” In his mind, anything and everything from operations to merchandising needed to address that core principle, otherwise it was a hindrance to doing business rather than a help.

Yet amazingly, as retailers we often find ourselves shackled in chains of our own making. All of us, at some point in our careers have either created or blindly followed unfriendly policies without really thinking it through. Less than 5% of customers are “problem customers” who either steal, swindle or abuse return policies (“renters” as we used to call them), yet often retailers create policies intended to foil that 5% while inadvertently alienating the 95% of customers that we want to keep.

I’m certainly not advocating that when you have a genuine problem customer you should indulge them, but what’s important is that in a customer service situation you have a clear picture of who and what you’re dealing with, right now, and make a decision that’s in both yours and the customer’s best interest, at that time. A little creativity and goodwill will take you a long way in building lasting relationships with your clients.

Oftentimes, little details that we think are a good idea are in fact bad ones. A few years ago, on a trip to Victoria, we stopped in at a little boutique in the Inner Harbour whose name escapes me but it was a toy store with a year-round Christmas theme: mid-summer and there were Christmas decorations everywhere! Since my wife is absolutely bonkers about Christmas, of course we had to check it out!

Years in retail have left me really hard to impress when it comes to merchandising, but this store was beautiful; too beautiful in fact. All over the store mixed in with every single display were little 5x7 hand-written note cards with exquisite penmanship forbidding and admonishing against touching anything, and with a snotty tone to boot: “don’t touch the displays;” “please keep your children off of the rocking horses;” “absolutely do not touch or fold the tags on the Beanie Babies.” You get the picture. Never mind that I wasn’t inclined to do any of the above in the first place, the warnings everywhere made me feel like a four year old being scolded to be on my best behaviour.

I get that the proprietors take pains to make their store a work of art, but honestly, if you don’t want anyone to touch anything ever, open up a toy museum and put everything behind glass. The reality of the situation is that instead of the load of cash I anticipated having to spend following my wife around the store, we didn’t spend a dime. As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and theirs wasn’t positive. Since the customers are the ones who make our paycheques, care needs to ensure that our relationship with them is not only profitable, but enjoyable.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Warranties in the CE World

By: Lee Distad

Yamaha made waves in the Canadian marketplace this week when the company announced that, effective immediately, it would be implementing a four-year warranty for the RXV1900, RXV3900, RXZ7, and RXZ11 AV receivers, AS1000 & AS2000 integrated amplifiers, CDS1000 & CDS2000 CD players and the YSP4000. Even more amazing, the warranty would be retroactive for customers who’ve already bought the products.

Years ago, when I started working at Sony, the warranty on Trinitron CRT TVs was five years. Then it became three years, and eventually one year. A co-worker of mine once cynically predicted that one day our TVs would have no warranty at all, and if a customer wanted a warranty, he would have to buy one.

He wasn’t too far off in his prediction. Warranties in CE have been steadily evolving towards two separate poles: longer, more customer care-centric warranties on higher-end goods, and shorter warranties on commodity low-price point gear. Bryston’s 20-year transferable warranty is famous in the HiFi business, and brands that aspire to be seen as high-quality use a long warranty period as a mark of prestige, such as Yamaha has now done.

Not to say that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the warranty situation at the other end of the scale. Price point electronics are so cheap today that consumers have to decide if they want to protect their toys, or view them as disposable. Earlier this year, I bought my daughter a no-name portable DVD player from Future Shop. The warranty on it was 30 days, but I elected to pay for a five-year extended warranty. As it happens, it croaked six weeks later. Because my model was out of stock, Future Shop happily upgraded me at no charge to a model with a bigger screen, and transferred my warranty over to the replacement. It’s experiences like that which can cement customer loyalty to even a big box store.

When I think of the brands that have given the best warranty service to either my clients or I, the common theme is that getting the problem solved is a pleasant, hassle-free experience.

My point, and I did have one, is that savvy retailers and manufacturers both know that warranties are an ace that they can play to seek a competitive advantage. I imagine at least one rep for one of Yamaha’s competitors must have read the news about 4-year warranties and spit coffee all over his laptop. Provided that vendors stand behind their products and give consumers a big tummy rub when they need it most, a strong warranty story is a talking point in the presentation that ends up closing more sales.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Planning for Vacation: Can You Leave the Office at Home?

I once said way back in the 30th anniversary issue of Marketnews Magazine (can you believe that was six years ago!) that this industry is like Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. While the statement was in reference to people who may have left to pursue other opportunities, or perhaps even have retired, I've been thinking a lot about it in reference to a shorter-term split: vacation!

By tomorrow afternoon, I'll be basking in the sun on holidays, and while it will be easy to leave the office at home, it also won't be. Anyone who works in this industry, and especially in Canada, knows how tight-knit it is. Everyone knows everyone, and a week is like a year in terms of how quickly things move.

Once you leave the office, you might physically be at home, but you often come in contact with so many things that remind you of work: watching TV and observing the picture quality. Listening to the audio system in a restaurant and thinking about how awful it sounds. Checking your BlackBerry under the dinner table while your wife shoots you a dirty look. Enjoying some fun family time with the kids on the Wii gaming console. While some are able to leave work behind more effectively than others, this industry is so ingrained in everyone's daily lives, that it's hard to do so entirely.

So while I work hard to prepare for my 2-week absence, I find myself wondering how often I'll feel the need to connect. Will I be frantically searching for WiFi zones to jump online? Last year, I managed to cope, although I did find myself a bit twitchy at times. This year, however, I'm outfitted with a BlackBerry (the Bold, of course), which might make surfing online a bit more tempting. Will I be checking our Website properties to see what's going on while I'm away? Will I hear about a big news story and think "darn, I hope we've covered that!" Will I be in the middle of dinner only to have a random thought pop into my head: "We should do this at Canada Night this year!"? Or perhaps be reading a book (Hug Your Customers, no doubt) under a beach umbrella only to look up and think: "That beach scene would be perfect for the article on tech for the summer in 2009".

Chances are the answer to these questions is both yes and no. The truth is that once you're actually away on vacation, leaving the office behind becomes easier and easier with each passing day. Don't you think? But let's face it: as much as you want to deny it, work is always in the back of your mind.

As for me, I'm not actually going to a hotel in California, but I will be checking out for a few weeks. In my absence, Lee Distad, Marketnews custom A/V contributor (author of the Custom Corner column both online and in print) will be taking the reigns and guest blogging here. You might also see a few more tales of woe from Marketnews and here's how! Associate Publisher John Thomson.

Enjoy their insightful and interesting commentary; and I look forward to rejoining the team in a few weeks!

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Battle Heats Up Among Artists, Labels, & Digital Downloading

Musical artists have banded together to create the Featured Artists’ Coalition in order to demand greater control and ownership over music that’s distributed online and, more importantly, for a larger cut of the revenue pie. While it's easier to determine who gets what when a physical CD is sold through a retailer, things become stickier when you’re looking at individual tune downloads sold through various Websites. It’s like déjà vu with the Hollywood Writer’s Strike, which just took place late last year, and which centred around, among other issues, video content distribution online.

The organization is asking, among other things, that artists always retain ownership of their work, that all agreements are conducted in a “fair manner” (you mean this isn’t the case now?), and that artists must always be informed on how their work will be exploited. Recently, for example, artist Jack White wrote a song for the new James Bond flick, which was then reportedly unbeknownst to him released first in a Coca Cola commercial.

Artists are also asking that copyright be by license, not by assignment, and be limited to 35 years. When it comes to performers that don’t write their own work, these guys are asking that they receive the same rights as the authors themselves.

The artists involved in the Coalition already numbers more than 60, and include some really big name musical artists like Radiohead, The Verve, Craig David, Robbie Williams, and the Kaiser Chiefs.

It was only a matter of time. While we have seen a battle ensue within the music industry ever since digital music downloading has taken over, artists have never really taken a major, unified stand. Music labels have fought it out to create favourable deals with digital downloading companies, and have even taken legal action against illegal, peer-to-peer file sharing sites. But have any of these deals really worked in favour of the artists?

It seems that while everyone involved has slowly begun to warm to the reality that is digital music downloading rather than trying to stop it, another issue has been brewing: payment. A song sells for $0.99 on iTunes versus a full, $20 CD in the store. Who gets what out of this deal? Can we really divide profits from a buck 50 ways in a manner that looks out for the interests of all involved versus a full CD?

It sounds like whatever the current situation is, artists aren’t happy. And while the record labels or digital download sites could easily turn up their noses to the artists and say “too bad”, the reality is that these are the guys actually making the music. Back in the day, artists may have been at the mercy of the guys who could get their music sold, and get their name exposed to the public. It wasn’t so easy to record, create, and sell your own CD: what struggling artist had the means to do that? But today, it’s pretty easy to set up your own digital download Website, or to get your music out to millions with just one click (MySpace, anyone?) So it’ll be interesting to see how this drama unfolds.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

Customer Service – Doesn’t Everyone Behave Like This?

John Thomson, Associate Publisher, Marketnews & here’s how! Magazines, is the guest blogger for today. Enjoy his entry on a recent shopping experience that shed some light on how retailers can and should treat their customers.

Last month, I ended up in Washington, DC, while en route to a family vacation in Cape Hatteras, NC. I had never been to DC, so I was excited to take the kids to the Smithsonian, and see the monuments, Capitol Hill and the White House.

On a reprieve from cultural activities, the family wandered from store to store in Georgetown, a very hip and trendy suburb of DC. One of the shops that we strolled in to is called Vineyard Vines, a clothing store founded in 1998 by brothers Ian and Shep Murray. Think Polo meets Brooks Brothers meets Roots. Essentially, a great shop of casual clothes that you’d expect to see worn on an island holiday. The store is bright, well laid out with lots of photos of celebrities and politicians wearing Vineyard ties. There are media clippings showcasing the success of the Vineyard Vines brand on the wall, and big comfy sofas with coffee table books on topics like sailing and island life.

The store is designed in a way that makes you want to hang around, all the more so by the welcoming nature of the staff. When we walked in, the sales team said hello, thanked us for coming in, and took the kids over to a sofa where a Disney movie was playing. They asked my wife Cathy and I if we’d like a bottle of water while we looked around, and showed us the ‘fridge where we could help ourselves to additional bottles. Everything was a delight. I plopped myself on a sofa while Cathy tried things on, as did the girls. The sales team worked in tandem finding sizes for my gang. They also treated my 11 year old like she was 20, enthusiastically complimenting her on her wardrobe choices and treating her like a customer rather than the child of a customer.

Naturally we bought. Boy, did we buy! At the counter, I noticed they were selling a book with a rather goofy name called Hug Your Customers by Jack Mitchell. Being Canadian, I had no idea who Jack Mitchell is, but I do know who Warren Buffett is, and when he is saying that this is a must-read book, I take notice. Looking for an opinion on the book, I asked the young guy ringing us through if he’s read it. Not only had he read it, but it is a mandatory read for any person wanting to work for Vineyard Vines and the customer service principles outlined in the book are the golden rules for the organization.

I bought the book. If I can be that impressed with the way I was treated at Vineyard Vines and this book plays a role in the retailer’s culture, than sign me up! The underlying theme of the book is that the only way to stay in business is with customers, and that a relationship with your customers is at the heart of every transaction. In other words, hug your customers. I finished the book and passed it along to Damien in our office, and he’s now passing it along to Christine who will then give it to Lindsay. It turns out that Jack Mitchell owns a couple of clothing stores run as a family business. His suburban locations are a train ride from arguably the best shopping in America (NYC), yet his stores achieve among the highest margins in the industry with incredible customer loyalty.

I still think that the book has a goofy name, but since finishing it, I find myself analyzing every transaction that I am exposed to on a daily basis. The frown on the lady that sells me a cup of coffee, the lack of a hello from the guy who makes us our sandwich at the mall, to the boutique clothing store that I visit that never calls to say thanks for the business. I didn’t realize how few hugs I am getting until Jack Mitchell wrote about what’s just expected as a common courtesy when you are one of his customers! Jack Mitchell has established a very successful business going into its fourth family generation on the simple principle of a welcoming smile. Something that Vineyard Vines, has certainly borrowed. It sounds so simple. So why isn’t everybody doing it? The problem may be that you think you are.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

NDAs: Signing Your Life Away for New Products

NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) have been a part of the journalistic process for a long time now. Manufacturers will provide a "sneak-peek" at products prior to them hitting store shelves, and will sometimes even supply review samples ahead of time. The catch? You must sign your life away, so to speak, promising that information won't be published prior to the product's official launch date.

I find the entire process interesting, especially in the wake of the Internet and Web "leaks" that often occur when people dig for secret development information on products, or employees release confidential information anonymously for the thrill of it. It's good to know, however, that in the age of swarms of blogs and Websites that thrive on disclosing confidential information, real, journalistic integrity still exists.

We'll often go to events or receive products or product information under NDA, and, in some respects, it creates an air of excitement in the office. Think about it: we get to see this product or that before the general public does. How cool is that?! More importantly, from a publishing standpoint, it's also essential for business so that when a print issue hits the streets, we can include the most up-to-date information as possible. Even on the Web side, it's useful to have information ahead of time so that a review or details on hot new products can be covered ASAP the day they're released. Granted, this isn't always possible. But when it is, it sure helps the cause!

On that note, I've been receiving a ton of NDA information as of late as I prepare for an upcoming vacation (and naturally, need to finish up articles way ahead of schedule, which means that I need information way ahead of schedule). Today, for example, I got to preview the cool, new Elmo Live tech toy that will be hitting stores later this month. The company is being very "hush-hush" about some of the cool features this latest Elmo has, quite obviously to create hype prior to the launch. After seeing it in the flesh, I'm confident it'll be a hit with the holiday gift giving crowd. Stay tuned later this month for a video of the new, very lifelike, Elmo. It'll definitely have you in stitches! I wish I could reveal more, but, well, I've been sworn to secrecy, and if I told ya, I'd have to kill ya!

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