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A Letter to Our Vendors

A Letter to Our Vendors

In which we ask why they are marketing impossibilities instead of technologies.

Dear vendors, Like most CIOs, I'm a simple person with simple needs. Give me a house on the ocean with a view of Nicole Kidman's swimming pool and a dangerously fast car with diplomatic plates, and I'm happy. And, of course, give me the things that money can't buy, like a computer that works like the ones on TV.

Have you all watched any of your commercials on the morning cable news channels lately? You know, the ones flogging technology? What the hell are you guys thinking? Now, I freely admit that what I know about advertising and marketing could fit on the back of a matchbook. And I suppose that there might be some value in selling technology that doesn't exist yet (after all, what's the harm in pumping a little sunshine up our collective skirts now and then). But what in the world is the point of marketing technologies that will, for technical reasons or general lack of interest, never exist? (Please note that when I say never exist, I mean in my lifetime - the only horizon I happen to care about.) I first noticed this particular bit of silliness a few years back when Oracle began running an ad for an Internet access device - a low-cost keyboard and modem hooked to a television set that would bring the Internet to poor children. The ad opened in an inner city apartment building and zoomed through a window where we saw a kid, keyboard on lap, accessing an educational Web site. On the television in front of him a whale breached and fell back in the water in colourful, full screen, flawlessly fluid motion. What Oracle failed to explain in the ad, besides where one could go to buy one of these things, was how this kid's family was able to afford a T1 circuit and the associated hardware to support 30 frames per second full-motion video. This, we were left to assume, must be the best wired tenement building in New York City.

My current favourites are a couple from my friends at IBM, part of their "E-Business Innovation Campaign" series. In one, a woman points her mobile phone at a soda machine, hits a button, and a can of mildly corrosive, carbonated sugar water rolls out to the tag line "Wireless E-Business Coming from IBM".

Hey, I'll go out on a limb here and predict that this is not the future of e-business - not because it can't be done, but because it won't be done (and while you guys will never admit it, I think you know that). This happens to be an area I know something about, so believe me when I tell you that an outdoor, graffiti-covered vending machine being serviced by a minimum wage delivery person, appropriately outfitted and networked (wireless or otherwise) to accept payment from a mobile phone would make the cost of a can of Pepsi about, oh, five bucks.

Might as well vend Dom Perignon in Waterford crystal glasses.

But vending machine profitability aside, and acknowledging the crushing burden of carrying around more than a couple of fifty cent pieces in your pocket, how is a mobile phone easier, more reliable or more secure than a credit card?

The other e-business ad, to be forever filed under the heading Fat Chance, opens on an aggravated businessman speaking rapidly into a speaker phone in one of those languages that seem to have no breaks between words. Let's say it's Turkish. Taking the heat at the other end of the line is a young woman in Anywhere, USA, except she's hearing the words translated by a computer, real-time, in English. Her answers, spoken in English and translated real-time back into Turkish, are heard on the conference room speaker in the same high octave female voice. The businessman's concerns are addressed, and everyone smiles.

What next? American Airlines advertising scheduled service to Jupiter?

Given the current state of speech recognition technology, I imagine the conversation actually went something like:

Businessman (in Turkish) "I need to speak to someone in the service department right away!"

Translation "My voice will ask you to wax my dog."

Young Woman (in English) "Wax your dog?! What's that supposed to mean? Hey, who is this?"

Translation "Of course, sir. I'll connect you."

Speech recognition is one of those technologies that's been going absolutely nowhere for a long time. Due ewe no watt eye mean? In 1984, I worked on a project with a company called Heuristics to adapt its speech recognition input device (a microphone and black box about the size of a suitcase) to a mini-computer built by MAI Basic Four. The system had a vocabulary of a few hundred words, worked correctly about 70 per cent of the time and was clumsy to use. That is, it worked every bit as well as the systems we have today. The lack of real progress during the past 17 years isn't for want of trying; it's because it's so darn hard to do. So hard, in fact, that a viable solution simply won't be developed with any of the tools we have today. Layer on top of that the need for a consistently reliable translation processor capable of understanding accents and intonations, and then accurately communicating intent, and you're staring at a problem so big it actually stares back.

What Are You Thinking?

Given this particular trend in marketing, I recently did one of my highly informal surveys of friends to test their impression of the state of computer technology and - Jeez! - either your ads are more effective than I thought or I need to get smarter friends. There's a lot of confusion out there, and a real gap between perception and reality that may, in fact, be contributing to some of the difficulties we IT guys have managing user expectations.

So here's my question. Why? With the cost of producing and airing commercials so astronomically high, and with so many real products and real services in your offerings, what's the point of selling flashy impossibilities? Or is that indeed the point? It strikes me that these ads are (in spite of their cost) a relatively cheap way to get a foot in the door. The kind of trick that gets used car salesmen in trouble with consumer protection agencies. It seems that you are intentionally targeting a nontechnical audience - executives that should, but don't, know better. Executives who write me little Post-it notes that read: Why aren't we doing this?

Honestly, guys, this is really pointless and in the long run actually hurts both our chances of delivering real value. I have a few suggestions, but first let's make sure that we're clear on three very important things: I make the buying decisions, I place the orders, and ultimately I judge the success or failure of your product. With that in mind, please consider the following suggestions when developing your next television marketing campaign.

First, speak directly and intelligently to me, the CIO, instead of to those above and around me on the organisation chart. Second, stop trying to sell consulting services by intimating, however subtly, that my IT department is not up to the job ("Keane - We Get IT Done"). Suggesting that my department is not up to the job is pure nonsense. I've seen your people in action, and they're not better than mine. Third, how about presenting CIOs in your advertisements as competent, dignified professionals, worthy of a spot on the senior team, instead of the harried, dishevelled nincompoops that have now become the television stereotype? And finally, and surely most important, market only those things that you (and we) can actually deliver.

It ought to go without saying that if you directed your highly developed marketing skills toward making my job easier, you'd actually sell more stuff. Help me sell adequate levels of investment in technology to top management. Help me direct attention to the right technologies at the right time. Help me promote confidence in my department among top management and users, and they, in turn, will green-light more projects. More projects, more spending, more orders to you, our vendors. Simple, eh? Now do it!

We'll be watching.

Sincerely, Anonymous

Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies for more than 12 years

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