Archive for June, 1994

A CD-ROM Diatribe…

Tuesday, June 7th, 1994

(This column first appeared in the June 7, 1994 issue of PC Graphics Report)

I really admire the creativity of the various people and companies behind CD-ROM software (or discware?) these days. To many of us in this industry, there are obvious uses for CD-ROM’s sizeable storage capacity. These include mundane things like raw data, such as product documentation and reference material like Ziff-Davis’ Computer Library. This data reference mechanism is being extended to cover phone directories, mailing lists, and even encrypted software distribution. However, while useful, these uses are basically boring.

Who Could Ever Need That Much Data?
Some companies, like Microsoft, bring this to extremes. One recent delivery we received as part of their Level II Microsoft Developer’s Network kit was a 10-pack of CD-ROMs! Actually we received only 8, with 2 more promised RSN (Real Soon Now). If you think about it, 8 CD-ROMs, at a maximum capacity, without compression, can contain around 5 gigabytes of raw data. Now, I was both relieved and irritated to discover that the CD-ROMs from Microsoft weren’t quite full – in fact, many of them only had 100 MB or so of content. My relief stems from the fact that I really am not interested in sifting through 5 gigabytes of data. I just don’t have the years that would take. I am irritated by the fact that Microsoft could have probably condensed everything they sent onto 2 CD-ROMs, thereby making the contents much easier to manage. After all, not everyone has a CD-ROM jukebox. (I saw a CD-ROM tower at Spring COMDEX this week that held 14 CD-ROM drives, all for a mere $21,000 or so – not something within most normal budgets.)

Back to the Microsoft CD collection, I should mention that most of the material on those CD-ROMs was executable code (including every version of Windows imaginable – Japanese, American, you name it) and lots of documentation. All quite useful, at one time or another, but also not extremely exciting. It certainly does save money as a distribution medium – imagine stuffing a gigabyte or two on floppies, and even worse, having to install off them. Ugh.

Graphically Speaking
Where CD-ROMs tend to really differentiate themselves from other portable media is content. While programs and documentation certainly can take up quite a bit of storage space, they don’t come close to the requirements of still and moving graphics images (and accompanying sound). Hence the recent explosion of intensely graphical games (The 7th Guest and Return to Zork among them) and resultant technologies like digital video. This all, in turn, has spawned some very novel (and droll) uses of CD-ROM in the market.

The obvious graphical CD-ROM titles are just a natural extension of the documentation storage discussed earlier, except that graphics have been added in some shape or form, be they artist renditions of what a given dinosaur is believed to have looked like, or a film clip documenting JFK’s assassination. Several types of CD-ROM encyclopedias and historical digital documentaries have adopted this approach. One of the latest and neatest implementations of an educational historical documentation comes in the form of Knowledge Adventure’s The Discoverers, which makes the whole process of finding out about various explorers and inventors throughout the ages extremely interactive and entertaining. And the soundtrack is quite breathtaking.

Storing digitized video sequences on CD-ROM can be done creatively (as in the case of The Discoverers), or mundanely, such as capturing a whole movie onto CD-ROM and calling it interactive because you can stop, play, fast forward and rewind the jerky and blotchy psuedo-movie (I’ve actually had someone try to sell me on this “concept” as the ultimate in interactivity, even though it’s what my VCR already does).

Is There Romance On That CD-ROM?
I recently saw an extremely creative use of incorporating both stills and moving images into a CD-ROM product, namely Romulus Productions’ CD-Romance (see a recent issue of PCGR). The name doesn’t really provide a specific impression of what the product is – it could be a romance novel, the latest title in the emerging arena of “adult” CD-ROM titles, or even a computerized guide on how to get more romance into your life. The latter hits closest to the mark – CD-Romance is the personal classifieds on CD-ROM (i.e. “SWF seeks one-legged albino male who enjoys sky diving, mud wrestling, and fine wines…”).

You will shortly be able to buy the latest CD-Romance at your local software/hardware/book store for about $50 retail, pop it into your CD-ROM drive, fill out an on-screen questionnaire helping define your interests, likes, dislikes, sex, etc., and the software then pops-up a list of possible matches from its database of 300 people. The list of matches shows up in the form of still images (generally, a scanned in photo of the person).

You click on the photo, and poof!, you get a little motion video playback, along with recorded sound, where you get to see the person do their bit about themselves. You can also pull up a written list of their various likes, dislikes, and other characterizations. If you find some people you want to get to know better, you just use CD-Romance to dial your modem and send a message back to Romulus with the first names (all you’re given) and ID numbers of the people you’re interested in, and they’ll forward all your info to the people you indicated interest in. Then, if they are interested in pursuing things further, you’ll know. If you don’t have a modem, a letter sent via US Mail will do the trick.

New CD-Romance CD-ROMs will come out quarterly, and getting yourself listed is currently free. Romulus was recording (via video camera) applicants at COMDEX/Spring ’94 to be on the CD-ROM. Surprisingly, based on the ratio of women to men at COMDEX, Romulus was seeing a 2:1 recording ratio of women to men. While future plans including charging for the recording and registration of people for inclusion on the CD-ROM, revenue is currently supposed to be generated solely by commercial sales of the CD-ROMs, and a subscription service is also available at about $30 an issue. The publisher of CD-Romance hopes to expand the business to take demographics and geography into account, so that in a few years time it might be possible to get a CD-ROM of “single, Jewish, straight men in the Chicago area”, for example (their words, not mine). In any event, this represents the most novel use of CD-ROM I’ve seen lately, but I’m sure there’s something new lurking just out of sight. Any of you interested in getting participating in CD-Romance, or just wanting more information can contact Romulus in Carmel, Indiana at 317-843-5535.

An interesting footnote is that a couple ex-Truevision folk are key consultants to Romulus in this project.

My List of CD ROM Woes
CD-ROMs are becoming ever more pervasive in the PC market, as well as in the gaming market (3DO, Sega, and Atari), due to their excellent capacity and low cost. But, while Iapplaud unique applications of CD-ROM technology, I also see a significant set of hurdles that need to be overcome in order for CD-ROM technology to become a standard part of every PC user’s desk top.

The most noticeable problem is the lack of performance. Even today’s common double-speed CD-ROM drives are really just too slow. According to an IBM study conducted a couple decades ago, a user’s attention and focus wanders any time the user has to wait more than a half second for system response. So, if response time is dependent on retrieving information off the CD-ROM (which it is with most of today’s CD-ROM titles), the user’s concentration is basically shot. This was a problem I saw with Panasonic’s 3DO machine.

NEC’s new quad speed CD-ROM drives should help diminish the performance bottleneck, but even so, CD-ROM access and transfer rates need to get around to that of modern hard drives in order to be truly useful and seamless. This sort of throughput is necessary in order to make high quality, high resolution digital video playback viable. And no, I don’t see it being viable today. I offer my apologies to all of you out there marketing “real-time” digital decompression technologies, but I’ve yet to see an affordable playback solution that doesn’t make me cringe as a result of chunkiness, blockiness, poor color, or missed frames.

Significantly faster CD-ROMs could make this happen and allow digital implementations to approach analog reality.

Another woe of CD-ROMs is that while everyone seems to be hopping on the CD-ROM bandwagon and producing gobs of CD-ROM titles, no one seems to be able or willing to provide an inexpensive CD-ROM jukebox mechanism. Heck, I can go to the local electronic gadget store and get audio CD players capable of storing 5, 6, 10, 50, and even 100 CDs for near immediate access at bargain prices, but I still stuck with a paltry single-CD CD-ROM drive for regular use. With companies like Microsoft sending me 8 or 10 CD-ROMs, or Corel packaging several clip art CD-ROMs in a bundle, a multi-CD-ROM drive is natural evolution.

Finally, another thing that annoys me about CD-ROM technology is the driver support and lack of real interface standards. I shouldn’t have to load a large, memory gobbling set of drivers to get a CD-ROM to work, nor should I be forced to buy, download, or hunt for a driver to properly connect a CD-ROM drive to my system. CD-ROM support should be a base, non-memory loading part of the PC’s operating system, and CD-ROM hardware connections should not be a weird melange of SCSI, SCSI-2, IDE, parallel port or proprietary interfaces. At this point, however, all this is probably just a pipe dream (and a good excuse to buy a Macintosh).

Now that I’ve railed on about the detriments of current CD-ROM technology, I’d like to point out an overlooked benefit, namely the inherent nature of CD-ROM media (the discs themselves) of not being reusable. This may not seem like a benefit at first glance, but free CD-ROM titles (such as the Ziff-Davis Benchmark Operation (ZDBOp) WinStone/WinMark CD-ROMs) are much more likely to only be requested by people who really want to use them because they are on CD-ROM. A surprising number of consumers take advantage of offers for free demo disks just to get a free diskette for their own use, and not because they want to try the demo software on the diskette. CD-ROM distribution of demo and free software cuts down on this misdirection and abuse of media and lets companies more cost-effectively target people who actually are interested in the product being offered.

Based on all this, I certainly wouldn’t bet the farm on the long term viability of current CD-ROM technology, but am in great admiration of people who are able to adapt existing CD-ROM technology to novel uses. I would, however, be willing to bet that the first few companies to produce and sell low-cost, affordable, high-speed multi-CD-ROM systems will be very successful.

Making It Easy For Your Customers

Wednesday, June 1st, 1994

(First published in the CAD++ Newsletter in mid-1994)

If you’re trying to sell something to a target audience, a number of things can impact whether a member of that audience will actually order something from you. It’s possible that if you have something your audience needs, they will order those products or services from you. But, let’s say you have competitors who sell identical products, or at least products that are perceived as identical by your potential customers.

What can you do to make sure that these potential customers choose to order from you, or even just talk to you so you can sell them on your offer and thereby not have them buy from or even talk to your competition?

Simply said, make the path to your door the path of least resistance. Make it painless for them to deal with you. Putting this concept to practice is not too difficult, providing you use some common sense, and are willing to spend a little money to earn a lot. Let’s look at some ways you can make it easy for potential customers to contact you.

Toll-Free Access
Almost every industrial nation in the world supports toll-free numbers of some sort. In all cases that I’m aware of, the “toll-free” implies that the caller is charged nothing for that call, which naturally implies that the person/company receiving the call picks up the tab for it. Here in North America, we have 800 numbers.

800 numbers originated many years ago as a way to make it painless (and free) for customers to call a vendor. Initially, vendors had to get several types of 800 numbers for nationwide coverage, including ones for their state, regional ones that might cover more states, and national numbers, that might or might not work in their state of business. When AT&T was forced to break itself up into smaller companies over a decade ago, a number of other companies, including Sprint and MCI got into the act, and started to offer their type of 800 numbers. Thanks to their competitive efforts, 800 service is now painless to set up and maintain, and you can enable or restrict access in many different ways. A local bike shop can actively choose to be accessible from all area codes within a 200 mile radius, for example. On the other hand, here at Panacea, our 800 number is callable from anywhere in North America including Canada and Alaska, as well as from Hawaii.

Your cost for offering 800 service varies anywhere from 10 to 50 cents a minute, depending on where the call is from, and there may also be a monthly fee of around $10 per 800 number. Looking at the numbers by themselves might make this look expensive, but if you figure that it significantly enhances your chances of having a customer call you and pay you money, it’s well worth the cost. Plus, it helps give your company a bigger image, and shows you’re serious about your business.

Getting the 800 service set up requires just a phone call to any long distance carrier – it does not have to be the same carrier you use for outgoing calls. For an installation fee (all installation is remote) of around $10 or $15, you can have your own 800 number, assigned to any of your incoming phone lines. In other words, when someone calls your 800 number, the call gets routed to your existing phone number – no new lines need to be added.

With 800 service this inexpensive, you can even set up private 800 numbers for special customers to call, or as a convenience for you to use to call your office when you’re on the road.

However, it’s important to remember that just having a public 800 number won’t get people to call you. You have to let them know about the number. Make sure to list it in big bold print on all your marketing materials and ads, and make sure to put it on your business cards as well.

A Little Known Benefit of 800 Numbers
Most consumers aren’t aware of this, but every time anyone calls an 800 number, the recipient of the call gets the caller’s phone number. For most companies, this information is provided with every monthly bill, but large organizations can arrange to get the number provided in parallel with the call. This latter step is how many cable companies implement Pay-Per-View (PPV) – they get the caller’s phone number, match it to their customer database, and then enable that specific household’s cable boxes for the PPV program. 800 numbers provide benefits similar to “Caller ID” to vendors. Small companies can take advantage of this as well, without having the expensive real-time tracking links to the long distance carrier, just by keeping a time log of incoming phone calls and matching it their bill every month – this way callers can get matched up to their phone numbers.

Don’t Rely On Just 800 Numbers
With the nice benefits of 800 numbers, it’s often easy to overlook that your international customers don’t have access to your 800 number. After all, if you advertise, you can bet that at some point your advertisement will probably make it overseas. Always make sure to list your non-toll-free number in your marketing materials in addition to your toll-free number, even if you put it in smaller print.

The Importance of Real FAX
Another vital thing to add to your marketing materials is a FAX number. If you don’t have a FAX machine, your business will never reach its full potential. They’re cheap – buy one. If you want to use a computer to act as your FAX machine instead, just make sure it’s on and actively expecting FAXes 24 hours a day. Also, while it’ll save you $20-30/month, having your FAX share your voice phone line conveys a negative image to your customers, plus, many of the line sharing devices are a pain for customers to connect through. The shared voice/FAX number just shouts “I’m a one-man company!” to your potential customers. If they are looking for long-term stability, you won’t get it with the one-man shop image. If you’re selling anything of value, and want to sell more of it, get a separate FAX phone line.

Why is FAX that important? Tons of reasons!

  • International customers, by virtue of time zone differences and verbal communications barriers, tend to use FAXes to convey information and ask questions.
  • A FAX machine also acts as an answering machine that accepts written messages.
  • You can get contracts, purchase orders, and signed order forms sent to you in a flash.
  • FAX signatures are considered legal and binding in many states.
  • Also, sending a one page FAX during the evening or night is actually a lot cheaper than sending a one-page letter first class via the mail.
  • Sending a FAX is much more timely than mailing the same thing.
  • A FAX can be photocopied and distributed, whereas a voice message cannot.
  • A FAX shows your customers you’re serious about doing business with them.

Convinced yet? I hope so. The FAX is perhaps the most powerful piece of office equipment you can own, besides a telephone and a computer. And again, don’t forget to list your FAX number in every advertisement and marketing piece you produce!

An Answer For Everything
Unless you eat, sleep, and shower with your phone, at some point you’re going to be in a position when you can’t answer the phone when it rings. And the potential customer at the other end is going to be quite perturbed that he can’t get anyone to answer the phone. The solution is simple – get an answering machine. Make sure the message you record lets the caller know you care about their call and that it will be returned as soon as possible. If you keep some sort of regular business schedule, make sure you put that information on your tape as well.

Some answering machines are set up to automatically page their owners via a paging device if a call comes in, while others can be found built into phones or FAX machines (make sure it’s a two line FAX). What you buy should depend on your needs and habits.

Who Needs Telex?
While it once had its heyday, Telex service is a dying breed, totally superseded by the inexpensive and pervasive nature of FAX machines. It’s probably safe to not bother with Telex anymore.

Do It Electronically
Perhaps the biggest new communications technology after FAX, and fast becoming an easy access necessity, is electronic mail (e-mail). I won’t spend a lot of time here discussing the various types of e-mail you can get, other than to tell you that if you do get e-mail (and I recommend it very highly), make sure that people can send you mail over the Internet. Virtually all e-mail and on-line systems offer that sort of connection these days, at varying prices. If the service you’re looking at doesn’t, find another service.

Don’t Forget The Post Office
While all the other technologies described above are instant access technologies, it’s important not to forget the good old post office. Business reply postcards and envelopes are a great way to make it easy for potential customers to get written information back to you. This can be somewhat costly however, running you around 55 cents for each such  postcard a potential customer returns to you, and a little more for an envelope. All that means, though, is that you should make sure that you get something valuable back via the business reply card or envelope, such as a valuable new lead or even an order.

Let Customer Decide How To Pay
Nothing in modern merchandising bothers me more than when I go to a store and try to pay with my American Express card, only to be told they don’t accept them because American Express charges them too much for processing. The net result is that I usually won’t go to that store in the future and will instead go to a competitor that lets me pay the way I want to. The same goes for you as a company. Just because American Express may charge you an additional percentage point or two on the transaction, is it worth losing the sale (or future sales) because of a measly few dollars? I don’t think so. Those that think otherwise are extremely shortsighted.

Of course, if you don’t currently accept any credit cards as payment, you’ve got even a bigger problem. Talk to your local bank and see what it’s going to take to be able to accept credit cards. A lot of banks give small companies, especially ones that do a lot of mail order business, a hard time in getting merchant status for things like Visa and MasterCard. Persevere and you will usually get the result you want. If not, lots of independent services will process credit cards for you, for a small fee. Ironically, American Express is a breeze to get to be authorized to process – just call the local American Express office to have someone visit you. I should mention that credit card processors tend to charge anywhere from 1% to 5% of the transaction amount, with the range in fees depending on your volume and average charge amount. Fees aside, credit cards are THE most convenient form of payment for most of your potential customers. If you force them to send you a check instead, you’ll loose a lot of sales.

Obviously, you should take checks, and if you’re concerned about them bouncing, just wait a few days to let them clear before sending out product.

CODs (Cash On Delivery, offered by most parcel carriers) are also check based, in that you get checks returned to you a few days after your product is delivered to the customer. You can specify whether you want to limit the checks the carrier accepts for your product to just cashier’s checks or money orders, which are almost as good as cash. You can also specify you will take personal and company checks – these have more risk associated with them, but the odds are still in your favor.

Finally, many large companies really like to have payment terms, so they can pay you 15, 30, 45, or more days after you bill them (and after they receive your product). This form of payment is much more difficult for smaller companies to handle, but if you require the buyer to provide a written purchase order (or just P.O.) in order to process such an order, your likelihood of getting ripped of are greatly diminished. One word of warning, however – avoid taking P.O.’s from outside your country. If a foreign company defaults on payment to you, there’s usually little you can do exact compensation from them. In your own country you can at least use collection agencies, for a fee, of course.

I’ve shown you a great many ways to make it easier for potential customers to contact you and order from you. Most of these methods are really just common sense. However, many people, especially small business owners, have a propensity for being penny wise and pound foolish, and therefore don’t take advantage of the small things that might cost a little bit of money in order to make lots more. Don’t let this lack of vision happen to you.