Killing Karaoke

Camped out in Beverly Hills
Typing in the dark as the troops sleep
2305 hrs.
No, We Don’t Take Requests

Karaoke used to be cool.

I’m talking 18 years ago when I was a furniture buyer for a U.S. importer living in Taiwan, Karaoke was a fun, exciting way to spend an evening, whether there were hostesses sitting with you and forcing you to drink overpriced brandy or not. What the hell – I wasn’t paying. Doing this was part of my job.

Then when I was working for a hot sportswear startup in the Mainland in the early 1990s, Karaoke was still cool. We’d sing everything from old Carpenters songs to Taiwanese pop to Cantopop to Cultural Revolution songs. And it was cool, and I got to be the singing monkey after a while, able to do the tough songs and the duets all in Chinese.

Then, when I was courting my wife and she took me out to dinner with her family, where she sang me love songs and her mother (an accomplished professional soprano) would sing songs from “The Red Detatchment of Women,” Karaoke was cool.

But then, I don’t know how, or exactly when, it just got old.

Maybe because sometime after 1995 we all started getting down to business and stopped going. Maybe because there were more choices of things to do after dinner. The last time I remember getting dragged out to Karaoke was by a vendor for the company I was working for in 1997 down in Hong Kong. Whatever it was, when I walked out of China-Hong Kong City that night (for the record, I left alone), I was relieved the evening was over.

Apart from the occasional humiliation at company parties or at home (for reasons unbeknownst to me, they always ask me to do my rendition of “La Bamba”), I’ve since avoided Karaoke, and I think I’m better for it.

I get the feeling a lot of my contemporaries feel the same. So when the central government starts talking about censoring Karaoke song selections, I don’t get all huffy about censorship – I merely breathe a sigh of relief. I know that over time fewer and fewer of my repasts will be disturbed by some half-drunk office manager warbling a sap-oozing ballad in a completely new key.

Electric Euthanasia

None of this is to say Karaoke will die. As tired as I and many others may be of Karaoke, it’s success is based on that least logical of beliefs that plague so many of us – that we actually sing better than others give us credit for, at least to ourselves, and we all want to be rock stars.

Karoke will morph. By restricting the songs that can be commercially played in Karaoke bars, the Chinese government is basically doing to those establishments what it has long done to cinemas – ensuring that the publicly delivered content is so bland that no official could ever get in trouble for allowing it to be played, and very few people see the point of paying for it. The results will be the same – Karaoke, like the movies, is being driven into the home.

Think of the trends that point to this:

1. The boom in the housing market that is moving a growing proportion of Chinese into homes that are actually suitable for entertaining guests.

2. The growth of digital home entertainment systems.

3. The explosion in downloadable content.

Want to Karaoke to whatever song you want? Set up your home system, download the file with your handset or your PC (or buy black-market Karaoke content from the guy who sells you pirated DVDs), and you’re off. Much more fun, much cheaper (in the long run), and far more flexible. Indeed, you don’t even need an expensive setup – within a year, you’ll be able to do it all on a mobile phone with an external pair of speakers.

The point is, all the new regulations will do is speed a process that is already taking place. This is anothe nail in the coffin of Karaoke as we know it, and a big step toward Karaoke becoming a pastime enjoyed in private.

A WiMax Godzilla in the Making – Will it Come to China?

On the Kohala Coast
Listening tearfully to the strains of “Aloha Oe”
2138 hrs.

As we pack up to shift the Silicon Hutong pennant from Hawaii to California for the next two weeks prior to returning to Beijing, an interesting article has come up in The Hollywood Reporter, where Diane Mermigas writes in her column that News Corporation and its DirecTV unit are chatting with all kinds of interesting people, including Craig McCaw’s Clearwire Corporation, about setting up a nationwide WiMax network in the U.S.

All of which is terribly interesting, of course, but what makes it a real head nodder from the China perspective is when you consider the following:

• It’s no secret that News Corporation has long held designs on China, and that it’s recent strategic shift in the PRC is away from broadcast and toward broadband – in particular, wireless broadband – a deal secured by becoming partners with China Mobile in Phoenix TV.

• Clearwire and Craig McCaw also have ambitions in China of no less intensity than Rupert Murdoch’s.

• Clearwire will, in all likelihood, not get a license to operate is WiMax services in China as a carrier.

A match-up between Clearwire, News Corporation, and China Mobile, on the other hand, would have extremely interesting possibilities.

• Clearwire has technology but needs an operator partner in China and, probably, some content.

• News Corporation has content and an operator partner but needs new channels and thus new technologies.

• China Mobile has customers and serious political pull, but needs both technology and content to build an unassailable position for itself as 3G rolls out in China. As Fons points out quite correctly, it sure doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in its global expansion efforts.

The call in the Hutong: if NewsCorp signs a deal with Clearwire in the USA, the next jump for the partnership (after side deals involving Canada and Australia) will be China.

Not All 3G Networks Will Cost the Same

On the Kohala Coast
Waiting for the family to wake up and feed me
1025 hrs.

Fons directs us to an SCMP article at AsiaMedia quoting Analysys International analyst Cui Xiaolong as saying that neither China Unicom nor China Netcom will be able to independently afford building a 3G mobile network, so they should combine forces and do it.

It’s hard to tell from the story, but it appears that Mr. Cui is assuming that it will cost all of the carriers the same amount of money to roll out nationwide networks. He seems to have missed an important point.

While certainly China Telecom and China Netcom will have to start from scratch and shell out up to $2.5 billion each to get their networks up and running, and China Mobile will have to cough up a good percentage of that because of minimal network redundancy with GSM, China Unicom will not be quite so fiscally challenged.

China Unicom currently operates a nationwide CDMA network based on CDMA 1X-RTT. As any Korean mobile phone carrier will tell you, upgrading that to a 3G-level network based on CDMA 1X-EV-DO will allow Unicom to retain the vast majority of its equipment in place, AND will leave the new network able to service all current subscribers because of the backward compatibility of the network.

(Point of fact, Unicom has been upgrading its network slowly anyway – or at least, that’s the buzz. By the time licenses are granted, Unicom will be approaching a fait accompli.)

In essence, not only will Unicom’s costs to operate a 3G network be a tiny fraction of that of its competitors, it will have significant operating advantages going forward because it will not have to operate two networks in parallel.

All of this assumes, of course, that the MII doesn’t order Unicom to scrap its CDMA network in favor of TD-SCDMA, but the thinking appears to be to let Unicom stick with the technology it has.

It also appears that Mr. Cui has neglected to mention a couple of other costs that will need to be considered, to wit:

1. Neither China Telecom nor China Netcom have established retail presence to sell their service and to drive subscriber growth. These will be immensely expensive and time-consuming projects and need to be factored into any cost calculation.

2. China Unicom remains the weak sister in Chines telecommunications for so many reasons they would consume a book. When considering the coming competitive challenge of 3G, however, Unicom’s most glaring issue is its failure to create a strong marketing organization. Privately, even China Mobile people will confide that China Unicom has long held a technology advantage over China Mobile. CHU’s failure to exploit that in the marketplace may well go down as the greatest lost opportunity in the history of Chinese telecommunications.

IF that is going to change, Unicom is going to have to make a huge investment in turning its reputation around, lest it be a weak last-place player in the market and eventually find itself turned into carrion.

3. China Mobile is going to get stuck running two separate networks for a very long time. One can only hope they do a better job at it than Unicom, which itself is saddled with two parallel networks. Until they can get all of their users upgraded to 3G – which won’t happen until there are very low-cost phones available several years from now – this is going to mean constant investments in parallel services, networks, phones, and the like.

4. I would also have thought Analysys would have pointed out a likely significant cost differential per user between TD-SCDMA networks and WCDMA networks. A signal from a TD-SCDMA base station doesn’t reach anywhere near as far as one from a WCDMA or 1X-EV-DO base station. This likely will mean that any carrier saddled with a TD-SCDMA license will have higher build-out costs to ensure consistent quality of service for the same number of subscribers in the same sized geography. Not also that this does not take into account any price differential between WCDMA (with its wider acceptance, initially better economies of scale, and greater competition among suppliers) and TD-SCDMA, which is basically starting from scratch.

Perhaps these issues are covered in the report, but if they are I’m surprised they haven’t made it into Analysys’ top-line thinking.

Will Competition Save WVAS Providers in China?

Sleepless on the Kohala Coast
0200 hrs
The elusive but erudite Perry Wu makes the case in this weeks Tech Market Watch on China Tech News that Chinese wireless value added service (WVAS) companies would be better off selling soybeans than services. He has a fair point, one that I’ve repeated regularly: the companies providing value added services to mobile customers in China via China Mobile or China Unicom are at the mercy of the operators, who can change contract terms at any time, dump providers, or simply squeeze them out of business by dropping their margins to zero, failing to pay on time, arguing about usage numbers, or launching competing services.

Perry is right about that. Being a WVAS provider in China is basically a license to be stolen from.

Where I fear Perry may be wrong, though, is that he sees no way out of the quagmire. He sees WVAS providers as dinosaurs after the meteor impact: the Great Die-Out is coming.

There are, in fact, two things that, when taken together, can save the WVAS players. It won’t work for all of them, but it will allow them to continue to exist, consolidate, and build independent, profitable businesses, which is a good thing for reasons I’ll go into below.

It Takes More Than Two, Baby

Part of the problem is that there are only two mobile operators in China, one of which is so large (China Mobile) that the only reason it doesn’t sit on the other (China Unicom) and crush it out of existence is the old saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” China Unicom makes it possible for China Mobile to swear with deepest sincerity that it is NOT a monopoly. (The same reason, IMHO, that Bill Gates invested in Apple back in 1997 – he couldn’t afford NOT to have a credible commercial competitor.)

But as we rot hover on the brink of a decision about the granting of third generation mobile licenses in China, it seems possible, if not likely, that there will be at least one and possibly two more wireless mobile providers within a year two years in the not terribly distant future. Assuming the WVAS can hold on that long (and surely the better financed of them will), they will be in a much improved position at the bargaining table.

The investments and technical challenges implicit in a 3G rollout, not to mention the pressure of intensified competition, are likely to compel operators to focus their resources on building and running the network, not creating mobile media and services. It will also put pressure on the operators to offer more (if not better) services to match those of the competition. If competition is healthy, it will be good for the WVAS providers.

The problem, of course, is the MII’s studied indifference to committing to 3G licenses in the first place. This is not good news for the WVAS providers who have the smaller bank accounts – they are less able to wait out the bureaucrats (actually, the resolution of TD-SCDMA’s technical problems) and thus at somewhat greater risk than their better capitalized cousins who are supported by other healthy businesses.

I Want My KongZhong

Operator competition alone won’t be enough, although it is a necessary prerequisite. What really can save the WVAS’ pastrami is the users themselves. But the providers have to make that happen.

You see, the one thing none of these providers have done is create services with such power among consumers that users will insist on or indeed expect them to be available regardless and wouldn’t think of buying a phone without one. I’m not talking about generic services like SMS or WAP, but about services that have unique content that is elegantly delivered to targeted users that have (or create) deep connection and meaning with users.

(See? I never used “brand” once in that paragraph. And I’m better for it. Am I the only marketer on the planet who believes the word “brand” should be expunged from any credible business document?)

Back in the early days of cable TV, people went looking for the news channel, the movie channel, the sports channel, the public access channel. Whatever. Our movie channel in West Los Angeles was The “Z” Channel, so named because the channels on the selector box were all assigned letters of the alphabet, and under the letter Z was the channel with the movies.

But not long into the 1970s a bunch of young hotshots came up with a movie channel that they called “Home Box Office.” What made Home Box Office great was not its brand or its name, but the fact that the movies were better, the channel was better produced, and they really seemed to get why people liked movies. HBO became a “brand” because of these things, and now no self-respecting cable operator on the planet outside of the PRC would dare NOT offer HBO as a premium service.

What the WVAS providers need to do is to create their HBOs, their MTVs, their CNNs, their Discovery Channels. They need to create services that are so good and engender such passionate following no operator would dare leave it off of the menu.

Can they do it? I have my doubts. Leaving aside the issue of requisite skills and access to content, many of the WVAS providers are small and can’t afford the investment in development and marketing that building services with deep customer affinity would require. Even the ones that could afford the effort would require such a leap in skill and imagination as to make it difficult to imagine. But if, out of all of the competitors even a single provider manages to make the leap, it will change the game.

The really smart ones will not try to go it alone. They’ll hook up with partners that already have deep consumer affinity in their own rights and need help creating a mobile offering. Creating such unions among providers and partners willing to experiment a little to get the mix just right seems right now to be the best way forward, if not the only way.

It’s Either Wolf’s Way or Wu’s Highway

But here’s the point: they have to try. Because failure to try to build a service that brings the indisputable power of user demand to the bargaining table will effectively consign the entire sector to the recycling bin.

The clock is ticking. Every day these companies hold off on making the investment to build truly powerful mobile media properties brings them closer to the end.

Frankly, deep down in places we don’t like to talk about at parties, we NEED the independent WVAS providers. The operators have demonstrated genuinely world-class network planning, rollout, and management skills. They have been embarrassingly bad at the softer side of the business, and it doesn’t look like they’re getting any better.

If no compelling services, created by companies who are really good at such things, actually emerge over the next 24 months, 3G is doomed in China as anything more than a device to get more voice calls onto less bandwidth, and the mobile carriers will be watching their ARPUs fall through the basement as they struggle to grow among the bottom 2/3 of China’s income pyramid.

In a nation where mobile phones offer the power of the Internet to people who will never be able to afford a computer, and the promise of greater connectivity to the people who drive China’s global competitiveness, such an outcome would be a serious shame.

I’m rooting for the WVAS providers.

I only hope they wake up in time.

Nokia, SARFT, The Next Standards Battle, and the Future of a Medium

Camp Silicon Hutong
Somewhere on the Kohala Coast
0017 hrs

Nokia has been tossing a press release of sorts around China announcing that they are bringing DVB-H, the mobile television standard most favored by The Boys from Espoo, to China to test. They even have a single model of a phone that can actually use that standard for the eyebrow-raising price of RMB 6,000.

Welcome, DVB-H and Nokia. Glad you could join the party, especially since QUALCOMM has been here testing MediaFlo for at least two years, and the local team has managed to modify their Digital Multimedia Broadcast standard (DMB – I know, not the smartest acronym around, but go figure) to include wireless handheld devices.

If it has taken this long for Nokia to start testing, something is seriously wrong, especially since the word coming from the west end of Chang’an Avenue is that SARFT is about to crown DMB-T/H [grin] as the standard of choice for China. Nokia is basically showing up at the 11th hour.

Frankly, I think something much bigger is going on.

Gunfight at the T.V. Corral

Word around the campfire in Beijing is that China Mobile and China Unicom have actually been testing all of the standards for some time. What makes this particular standard decision different than, say, the decision on what 3G standard to use or what frequency allocation each standard will get is that this decision will NOT be made by the Ministry of Information Industries, or MII, the regulatory entity that oversees the telecommunications industry.

For complex political reasons I won’t go into here, the decision will be made by the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television, or SARFT, because mobile television is seen by many senior government officials and Party cadres as a broadcast medium and thus under SARFT’s purview.

Now, I suspect the mobile handset manufacturing industry in China would like to see DVB-H or MediaFlo win, certainly not because of any deep love of either Nokia or QUALCOMM, but because these are international standards and phones made to use these standards are thus sellable overseas. If China can build a healthy market in DVB-H or MediaFlo phones, there are waiting markets overseas and the Chinese manufacturers would have enough economies of scale at home to be competitive abroad. In theory, at any rate. For carriers, the equipment is tested, in commercial use, and reliable, and thus good for business.

SARFT, on the other hand, likely favors the DMB standard because it has been reviewing it for terrestrial television broadcasts for some time, because it is a local standard (thus providing SARFT an opportunity to show its own overseers how it supports local innovation) and, frankly, because deep down inside they know that selecting it will cause a few cases of indigestion over at the MII.

Nokia – and the carriers – all know this. And it doesn’t make any of them very happy.

“Doc, Wyatt and I are Going to Check on the Horses. Wanna Come?”

So here is what I think is happening:

• The testing – from a technical standpoint, is done. That’s not what this is really about.

• Nokia applies for permission from SARFT for a test network, with a view of doing the test with (in all likelihood) China Mobile. SARFT won’t want to do it, but China Mobile will push very hard both at SARFT and the State Council to get Nokia permission, on the grounds that DVB-H deserves more than just a lab test.

• With such a test approved, it gets harder for SARFT to make an immediate decision about a standard. After all, testing is still taking place, right?

• The Test Network will be a “test” in name only. What it probably will be is a full commercial rollout in a limited geographic area. (After all, why announce a retail price for a handset if you’re just “testing” the network?) SARFT can’t cry foul on this because SARFT and entities under it use the “commercial test” method for technologies in television as well.

• Once the Test Network is up and running with customers paying for service, it gives the MII, China Mobile, and Nokia an opportunity to have greater influence in the final decision about a standard, and in the process of appealing SARFT’s selection at higher levels of government, like the NDRC or the State Council.

If this is the case (and mind you, I’m speculating here), Nokia is playing a dangerous game. It is not wise to interpose yourself between giants, and especially between organizations like the MII and SARFT. By fronting for its patrons in China, Nokia may well make itself some powerful entities. In a place where memories are long, the structure of the government is still evolving, and officials bounce around on a regular basis, that’s asking for trouble.

If I’m wrong, if there is nothing more to this than in the current release and Nokia is truly appealing to SARFT on its own behalf, then Nokia is far less China-savvy than even I had thought. Apart from the fact that this request should have been made a long time ago, it should have come from a local company, not a foreign enterprise. That would have made it much harder for SARFT to say no, and it would have put DVB-H on a more balanced footing with DMB.

Nokia’s China people know this. And that’s why this all seems so strange.

The Shots Heard Round The World

While seemingly esoteric, this fight has a profound importance that transcends the realm of the propeller-heads in the mobile phone business.

Sometime over the last year, something quite amazing happened. In the largest television market on the planet, with over 350 million TV households, the number of mobile phone subscribers surpassed the number of homes with televisions. At the same time, quietly, a small cottage industry has been growing around delivering both general and highly targeted marketing to multimedia-enabled mobile devices.

Meanwhile, a growing number of very large advertisers in China – and their agencies – are losing their patience with the rising advertising rates and the falling returns on spot television ads on Chinese television. They’re unhappy with having to fight harder for better air time, with the TV industry’s continued inability to deliver a ratings system anyone could swear by, and with growing evidence that Chinese are spending less time watching broadcast TV and more time on their computers and on the go.

The more visionary of those advertisers and agencies are taking a long, hard look at mobile TV (MoTV), China’s increasingly mobile population, and the ability to get more and more meaningful viewer information and feedback through mobile. This, understandably, worries the folks in the TV business. Even if they wind up supplying the content to mobile TV, they’re going to have to share their ad revenues with the carriers, and they’ll at best be in a weakened position when it comes to setting their rates.

We’re talking about potentially millions and eventually billions of RMB moving out of broadcast TV and into MoTV, more than enough to support the medium and to use China to make a global case for MoTV.

If a decision is made by SARFT – or someone who could override SARFT – to select a standard that is market-ready (like DVB-H or MediaFlo), MoTV could become a reality quite quickly, meaning that the shift of dollars would start taking place comparatively soon. If the decision was made to go with DMB – which still needs development work before it is commercially ready – the market would require many more years before MoTV became more than a blip for advertisers.

What is at stake, then, is the future shape of the Chinese Media Environment, and the flow of millions if not billions of U.S. dollars, completely disregarding any monies to be earned by royalties on technology, which could also run into nine or ten figures.

That’s a high stakes fight. And The Boys From Espoo are now squarely in the middle of it.

Good luck, Nokia. You’ll need it.

Musings on Cinema Sinica: Ending the Director-Centric Culture of Chollywood

The Silicon Hutong Corner
Starbucks China World Trade Centre
1355 hrs.

Over the last year, not a month has gone by when someone serious is not asking me about the future of Chinese cinema, and what is keeping the increasingly fecund industry from serious global commercial success.

There are a lot of reasons, but part of the reason I think is this rather illogical fascination with directors. Now, don’t get me wrong, directors are important. They are the guys who take a script, a slab of cash, and a bunch of people (cast and crew) they may or may not have had a lot of say about and are left with the task of turning it all into magic. Despite the relative power a director wields, the responsibility is immense.

But observers of Chinese cinema have developed this fascination about the director that borders on the obsessive, engaging in pseudo-esoteric discussions about comparative styles, the evolution of Chinese direction from one “generation” of directors to the next, etc.

Which is all fine, except that this focus on the director-as-artist-in-celluloid has led to a growing profusion of films that are…well…a tad self-indulgent.

Which is also fine, except when people don’t go to see those films (because they’re arty-farty, neo-Gallic, and not appealing to the masses who want escape for their money) and the government’s reaction is to slap restrictions on the foreign films because they’re being told that the foreigners are absorbing all the loose change in the market and not leaving anything for the locals.

Steve Schwankert (formerly Variety‘s man in Beijing, now AdAge’s man in Beijing) was talking to me today about how much he’s looking forward to seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest after watching the trailer.

“[Producer Jerry] Bruckheimer is great at saying ‘we’re going to do this, it’s going to be lots of fun, and we’re going to make scads of money,” noted the Schwank. “I don’t want to see a movie that the director was hot for. I want him to make a movie that I’m hot for.”

Chinese directors, please note Steve’s formula for cinema success (and another Steve’s formula for computer and consumer electronics success): start with the user experience you want to deliver, then do the industrial design, then figure out the nuts and bolts. Because if you do that, you’re totally focused on pleasing the audience, not “creating a vision” or “making a statement” or “composing an opus.”

You want to make a picture that is any of these things, then fine. Take it to film festivals, win your trophies, sell it to Fox 2000, and run out the DVD and listen to the respectful way film school professors talk about your work.

But don’t do it and expect millions of Chinese to flock to the theaters to watch.

And really – don’t sit down, as some of you do, with the senior officials from the film bureau or SARFT or the Party Publicity Committee or the State Council Information Office and blame your non-performance at the box office on the foreigners. Get off your posterior and make flicks the Chinese people will flock to watch.

If you’re half as good as your press coverage suggests you are (and I give you the benefit of the doubt – China produces some excellent directors), you can kick Hollywood’s ass for less money than they spend on so-called “low budget” flicks.

And for us cinemaniacs, it’s high time to take the limelight off of the directors and start understanding that there are other human ingredients in a successful film, and figuring out who those folks are and calling attention to them. Who are the great producers? The great screenwriters? The brilliant cinematographers, art directors, costume designers?

Because the idea that a director does it alone is a myth. The great directors, from Speilberg on down, all have a chosen coterie of craftspeople they work with on every film, because they know that they need the whole team to make them great.

China’s directors – regardless of generation – would be well advised to emulate that, and to encourage (and compensate) great craftspeople, and if they can’t find them in China, bring them in from Hollywood to teach their craft to the locals.

Give Me DisConnexion

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank waiting area
China World Trade Centre, Beijing
1529 hrs.

The media, in particular The Wall Street Journal, is reporting that Boeing is looking to sell or close its Connexion division, the business unit dedicated to delivering high speed broadband to people in their airline seats.

I’m sad to see it go, for a lot of reasons. First, it lands spot in the middle of two of my passions, telecommunications and aviation. Second, I thought it was a pretty good idea, enamored as I was of the idea of realtime e-mail (and later, blogging) from 40,000 feet. And third, as I told a couple of Connexion executives about four years ago, it was the one extra ingredient that turned an ordinary airliner with a look-down camera into a spy plane.

But it was not to be, and I’m starting to understand why.

Five Dollars Off

About six weeks ago I was flying from Singapore to Beijing, and a friendly person in the boarding lounge came up to me, asked me if I was traveling with a Wi-F equipped laptop. “But of course,” came my nearly-Gallic-in-it’s-indignance, Heinz-the-Baron-Klaus-von-Espy reply. “I am, after all, a Macintosh user.”

The young lady gave me a slightly strained smile and handed me a card. “This is good for $5 off of high-speed broadband access on the flight. Have a good trip,” she called as she hurriedly moved on to the next passenger.

I ran onto the plane (I’m like bloody Seabiscuit out of the gates when they open the boarding door – gotta be the first on and first off – “Hi, my name’s Dave and I’m an obsessive compulsive.” “Hi, Dave”), got myself settled, and took long look at the card.

I used to work on planes. Back at the beginning of my career and before the invention of the laptop computer, fresh out of grad school, I’d work from the time the seatbelt sign was turned off until it went back on again. Often, I’d travel with a colleague, and there was this unspoken competition to see which of us could get more done between Taipei and Honolulu, then again between Honolulu and LAX.

A Piece of Peace

I realized something as I stared at that card. The time I spend from hearing the words “flight attendants please arm doors and cross-check” until I hear the words “thank you – buh-bye” from same FAs at the end of the line is the only time I can really unwire, unwind, and contemplate. Depending on the duration of the flight, I’ll study a bit of Talmud, eat two meals, read a trashy work of historical fiction, and sleep. In between, I’ll listen to my iPod.

And I need that down time. I think a lot of us do. For me the best excuse for getting on the plane is that the phone is off, I’m offline, and even a Blackberry is off. It is the last refuge, the one place you can be and say you’re offline without having somebody resent you for it. I may not be rested when I haul my carcass off of a trans-Pacific flight, but I am refreshed, and a good night’s sleep will do the rest.

As the flight began its descent into Beijing in the late afternoon, I was treated to a multihued skyscape with cloud layers above and below and the sun between them, it was stunning, and it was somehow perfectly meshed with the music I was hearing through my headphones.

No email was important enough for me to miss that moment.

As cool as Connexion is, it’s not for me anymore. And in this always-on, always-plugged-in world, I suspect there are a lot of people who secretly think the same thing:

“I’m on the plane. Leave me alone.”

So I took a long hard look at that discount card. And stuffed it into the bowels of my carryon, never to be seen again.

Malcolm Bricklin’s Waterloo

ARTICLE: “Death of a Salesman” by Todd Lassa, Motor Trend, November 2005, p. 80

(Okay, I’ll admit, this is an 8 month old article, but in my defense I just got it a couple of weeks ago via my mail forwarding service, since I’m too cheap to pay for airmail, and I only read it last weekend. Nonetheless, it’s a superb feature and worth the read.)

I read Motor Trend because it manages to cover the car business from the horsepower-and-torque all the way up to the executive suite all without forgetting something that almost every other business publication probably never figured out: the automobile is as much recreation as transportation, and the business of designing, making, and selling cars belongs more squarely in the entertainment industry than lumped in along steel and other heavy industries. Also, unlike most of the other gearhead rags, Motor Trend occasionally remembers that there is, in fact, a whole big world out there south of Florida, east of Maine, north of Montana, and west of Hawaii.

Detroit editor Todd Lassa’s interview with serial car entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin did not disappoint. For those of you just joining us, Malcolm Bricklin is the gentleman who: built and crashed the Handyman Hardware chain just as the do-it-yourself craze was hitting a high point in suburban America; built and crashed a sports car company in the middle of the cocaine-fueled 1970s; and managed to build and bankrupt the infamous Yugo car company in the late 1980s.

So it is with a bit of skepticism that Lassa approaches his subject, but he gives Bricklin a more than adequate opportunity to hype his newest venture, Visionary Vehicles. You see, Bricklin believes that by working with Wuhu-based Chery Automobile Company he can import and sell Lexus-class vehicles for about half of a Lexus price. Which Chery is happy to do, providing Mr. Bricklin first hands over US$200 million in cash.

Is it me, or are there are so many interesting ways this train could wreck that you’re not sure who to warn about whom?

• Do you warn Bricklin, who is about to spend his sunset years, a lot of investor money, and the livelihoods of his dealers doing the hard work to build a market for Chery in the U.S. that Chery could crush at will as soon as they figure out they don’t need a middleman?

• Do you warn Chery president Yin Tongyao about how Mr. Bricklin has walked away from a procession of broken enterprises in the past, and that he may not be the safest guy upon whom to wager the company’s future market in China?

• Or do you just sit back and watch as Mr. Bricklin gets squeezed between his investors, his dealers, his consumers, and Chery in a mashup that seems bound to go wrong?

Something about this tells me that somebody is going to get taken for a ride in this situation, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Lassa, our writer, gets that, and he manages to inject just the right amount of skepticism at every turn. And it’s pretty clear he’s more worried about the Chinese than about ol’ Malcolm, who always seems to land on his feet.

Frankly, I’m more worried about the little guys in this process – the investors putting up the $200 million serious-money, the dealers who will put their lives and their savings into Visionary Vehicles, and the American families who will put their hard-earned dollars into a VV because that’s all they can afford.

Caveat emptor, y’all.

Microsoft’s Set-Top Legacy

ARTICLE: “Bill Gates’ Legacy: Microsoft’s Top 10 Flops,”by Mary Jo Foley, Microsoft Watch, July 16, 2006

We are bombarded with bad news (or good news, depending on your viewpoint) pouring out of Redmond these days. Gates is leaving. Ballmer is staying. The executive suite is emptying. The stock price is falling. VISTA is delayed. Office 2007 is delayed.

As such, it seems almost gratuitous to call to the attention of the world the failures of the world’s software giant. Mary Jo Foley, who makes a good living watching Microsoft, points out that some of Gates’ most visionary efforts have fallen on their faces.

One that she missed was Microsoft Venus, the China-only set-top-box that was going to enable millions of Chinese who had TVs but not PCs to use their televisions to get online. This was one of those ideas that looked really good on paper, but that clearly wasn’t subjected to the kind of critical thinking that should have killed it before it grew.

Microsoft managed to drum up support from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, whose city governments offered to cut Internet access fees by 50% for Venus users. Over 30 Chinese companies jumped onto the bandwagon, starting development efforts, including Lenovo (then still called “Legend”) and TCL, who were supposed to have products out by January 2000.

The product died an ignominious death less than a year later, never having made it out of the lab. The high cost of the units (RMB 3,000 apiece), the fact that using them preempted watching TV, the problem with screen resolution that killed WebTV, and political opposition from groups within and around the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the Ministry of Information Industries (MII) all contributed. In the end, however, what slaughtered Venus was Microsoft’s failure to understand the sheer scale of the task of creating an ecosystem that would support it. Venus wasn’t too hard for Microsoft. China was.

Interesting. They seem to be figuring China out. Too bad about the software.