Monday, January 21, 2013

Were you born mobile?

(Not to be confused with Goin' Mobile, wherein you can play the tape machine, make the toast and tea ...)

Qualcomm has received a lot of attention for its keynote at CES, and not necessarily the good kind.  Apparently, they were trying to invoke some inspirational vision of a new generation -- "Generation M", they called it -- untethered from antiquated wired connections, claiming the mobile web as their birthright.  And they, um, missed.

Verge has a typically scathing writeup (typical for coverage of this event, not necessarily for Verge), complete with Tweets from various Twitterati doing their best snark.  Overall reaction seems to run from "Hey, whizzy technology.  Kinda strange presentation, though" to "Oh ... my ... God ... what ... were ... they ... thinking?"

Disclaimer: I didn't watch the whole thing. I'm not sure I could.  I'm pretty sure I got the gist from the intro (up to Paul Jacob's "... or a CEO.") and excerpts of the rest.  I certainly haven't come across anything saying "Never mind the cheesy intro.  It gets better."  Even if it did, Qualcomm chose its lead-in to set the tone for all that followed.  For better or worse, the face of Qualcomm for some time to come will be thisthis or this (I mean the characters here.  I don't know anything about the actors, but I do know that if I were an unknown actor and someone offered me the keynote at a major consumer electronics show, I'd jump at it.  Just maybe not quite so quickly now.)

Qualcomm has been around for quite a while, even if not in the limelight.  Indeed, that was one of their points.  Nor are they completely incompetent at marketing in general.  I wouldn't expect this ad for their Snapdragon processor to win any Clio awards, but it's kinda fun and gets the point across.  That ad was, in fact, part of the keynote.  Sadly, it seems to have stood out for its non-cringeworthiness.  So why did it all go so badly awry?

Off the bat:
  • If there were any real geeks on the writing staff, they must have been acting under duress.  For that matter, if there were any actual social-networking popular-types on the writing staff, they must have gone out for lattes while that part was being put together.  Who talks like those three?  Put any of them in their supposed native element and they would be driven from the room by howls of "Who is this poseur?" or whatever.  It's like watching a 70s after-school special where the dad tries to "be cool" with the kid and the child actor is thinking "Get my agent on the phone!" Or like rapping public service announcements in the 80s and 90s.  Tornado92?  Really?
  • One does not simply declare a new generation.  "Generation X" was taken from a 1991 novel title that caught on, no doubt with a little help from the association with Billy Idol's old band (who took their name from an older use of the term).  "Generation Y" came out of an Ad Age editorial, and has sort of caught on, though no one really knows when it started or whether to call it that or something else.  "Baby Boom" was a demographic term used in various contexts since the 19th century that ... caught on.  And so forth.  Besides, the whole "Generation ___" thing has been done to death already.
  • If there really is a "Born Mobile" generation or "Generation M", it's going to be younger than the actors on stage.  Looking at US statistics for example, there were essentially no wireless-only households until around 2005.  Granted, the US is not cutting-edge when it comes to mobile adoption, but even in Scandinavia, home of Nokia and Ericsson, cell phone usage doesn't really start to take off until the turn of the millennium.  Smart phones, which is what Qualcomm is really talking about, are even more recent.
  • But at the same time, this is all old news.  The time to announce a new, "Born Mobile" generation is before everyone has a cell phone.  The penetration rate in South Korea has already passed 100%, or one cell phone per person.  Suburban malls in the US don't just have cell phone stores, they have specialized kiosks hawking teen-friendly cell phone accessories.  Have had for years.  We didn't have a generation "Born Mobile".  We've got a generation born sessile that has picked up mobile technology in a considerable hurry.  Except, it's not just one generation. You don't get to 100% penetration that way.  Three generations of my family have cell phones, and that's hardly unusual.

Not that a trade show opening event is supposed to be a technical symposium, but tell me something I don't know.  I know mobile technology is important.  I'm sure your processors are fast.

But there's something else, cultural, here.  The whole show hearkens back to a long-ago time when no one knew how to sell technology.

Time was, I seem to recall, that a furry geek from another planet could stand up in front of an audience of business people and stammer something like "Um, our new system has a 6502 processor running at 1MHz, 64K of RAM expandable to one megabyte, and a BASIC interpreter in ROM, so we think it's pretty cool," and the business people would scratch their heads, mutter "what's a RAM?" and somehow figure out what to buy.

Then the professionals came in.  There was, I believe, a brief period of feeling around in the dark, of figuring out whether to say "slash" or "backslash" or to mention that you need a browser to get to a web site, to take a couple of more recent, webbier examples, but this didn't last.  Professional marketers may not have known tech at first, but they do know what works and doesn't work in marketing and will adjust accordingly.

Somewhere in that early mix was a time when no one, not even the geeks, knew what to do with these "computer" things.  There was a grasping on the part of the geeks toward "real people" ... moms and neighbors, say, and a grasping on the part of the marketing folks toward, well, markets.  For some reason, one popular thing to say about a personal computer was that you would have one in your kitchen to help you organize your recipes.  I don't think anyone really believed that, but at least it was something to grab onto.  The intro to the Qualcomm presentation has something of that feel to it, which is odd coming from a company that had had enormous success selling wireless technology for decades.


Toward the end of the intro, the "entrepreneur" tells you about his billion-dollar idea -- because, you know, any college graduate can come up with a billion-dollar idea these days.  Of course, he's not really going to tell you what it is, but his cover story is "funny cat videos meets Gangnam style".  Because that's as up-to-date as you could possibly get, right?

Gangnam Style long ago passed from quaint goofy-looking video from across the ocean to cultural phenomenon to "please, please, don't play that again" on its way, I'm sure, to weapon of choice for drunk and clueless wedding guests, but there's actually something to it.  I've always found that culture shock is much worse coming back to one's own country, and here is Psy, returning to his native land and creating what, on closer examination, is a sly but sharp satire of a lifestyle.  A lifestyle of young, hip, heavily debt-ridden twentysomethings whose lives are much, much less than meets the eye.


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