Thoughts

The future is the past is the future

Back in late 2008, I heard of a technology that was touted as new: instant price matches, made available by scanning the barcode of a product in a store, through an iPhone app called Checkout SmartShop. I chuckled. This idea wasn’t new at all.

BarPoint

I worked for a company called BarPoint for a few months in 2000 or 2001, I can’t recall exactly. As you can see if you visit their domain name, it’s up for sale now. Back then, it was working just fine, and they were working hard to put together an online directory of products whose prices could be instantly matched from many stores. They even had gizmos with little barcode scanners you coud buy and carry with you to a store; they were little Palm PDAs outfitted with small add-on barcode scanners. These gizmos would connect back to the BarPoint servers via built-in dial-up modems, and would quote you prices from other stores.

BarPoint Wireless Devices

They had investors lined up, had cleared about two rounds of investing, had bonafide employees, etc. Unfortunately for them, it was the end of the dotcom boom. They were still burning through the cash and not generating any profits, because they didn’t get off the ground fast enough. I left as they started to cut employees. Other co-workers hung on through a company move from nice offices in downtown Ft. Lauderdale to a warehouse in Deerfield Beach (both in South Florida), and many efforts to revive the company. Things didn’t work out for them. You’re welcome to follow the site’s progress and slow death on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

What is obvious now is that they had two things going against them: the idea was ahead of its time, and the market crashed. Back then, this wasn’t so obvious. People thought the idea was cool and wanted to make it work. I thought it was cool and even thought they might somehow pull it together and start making profits, even after I left. I bought some stock in the company, only to watch its price sink to very near $0 over time.

The interesting thing about the iPhone is that it’s truly a game-changer. It penetrated the market quickly, and app development for it is so easy that you don’t need an army of people, like BarPoint did. You also don’t need to sell the devices, or worry that device adoption is reserved for a very small segment of the market. The iPhone is practically everywhere. I don’t even know if Kigi Software, the makers of the Checkout SmartShop, is a real company, or a dba name for one or two smart developers working from home. But that’s what’s cool about these times. The price for bringing an interesting product to the market is no longer prohibitive, like it was for BarPoint. Almost anyone can do it if they want to, nowadays. And the end product is something that kicks BarPoint in the rear quite effectively.

You simply enter the barcode into the iPhone using the numeric keypad, and you get instant price matches. Voila.

Enter UPCGet online price quotes

You can even find out where the product is being sold in other local stores, or read online reviews. It does everything the BarPoint product would have done if it could have gotten off the ground.

Get local storesGet reviews

Very nice indeed.

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Thoughts

Premium gasoline dips below $3 per gallon

As I filled up my MINI a couple of days ago, I glanced at the pump and noticed the price of the premium gasoline: $2.77 per gallon. I couldn’t believe it. I left the pump running and ran toward the street sign to take a photo.

I just didn’t think I’d ever see premium gas dipping below $3 again. While I’m sure others welcome the change — and I can’t say I disagree when you consider the issue solely from the point of view of one’s bank account — I still say gasoline needs to stay above $3 at the pump, in order to encourage proper driving behavior and to make research into alternative fuels and technologies viable.

It wasn’t that long ago that I paid $4.45 at the pump to buy premium gasoline for my MINI. There’s a huge difference between $4.45 and $2.77, and I don’t like this sort of yo-yo behavior when it comes to gas prices. First it was too high, and now it’s too low. It’s not right. It needs to stabilize somewhere between $3-4 dollars per gallon, preferably somewhere between $3.00 and $3.50.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on a gasoline tax (which isn’t a new idea, but already in use in Europe), see this post from March of 2005.

I took the photo above with my Nokia N95.

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Thoughts

Price wars are bad for everyone

I believe a lot in equitable pricing. A product’s price should be able to net its creator a decent profit — not a huge profit, not a tiny profit, because that makes it hard to go on, and certainly not a loss. That’s why I’m really annoyed with the recent price wars in the hardware industry. Scoble reports tonight on his blog that Seagate didn’t meet its projections in this last quarter because of horrendous price wars among hard drive manufacturers. An unnamed manufacturer was willing to lose over 100 million dollars just to maintain their foothold in the market. Beta News reports that AMD lost half a billion dollars in this last quarter, and that’s directly related to its price war with Intel.

This is bad. In the end, what was gained by the price wars? Companies lost money, their employees were overworked (to meet R&D and production deadlines), and everyone ended up stressed out. Did any company emerge as a winner? No, they didn’t.

I would love to see the frenetic pace of business and competition slow down to something more rational, more sustainable. I for one can imagine how stressful it must be to work in companies where you’re constantly pushed to meet deadlines, and more deadlines are coming at you down the pipe. I treasure the sense of accomplishment that I feel when I’ve just finished a project and know I’ve got a lull before the next one lands on my desk. No such thing goes on at these companies. Not only do they constantly have to find ways to tighten their belts and “restructure” by firing people, but at the end of the day, their bank accounts don’t really show the results of their efforts. What’s worse, they may even end up in the red.

I for one am willing to pay a little extra for my hardware, if I know that the pace of work at these companies is rational, and that employees there are treated well. Remember, we are all employees in one way or another. How would we like it if we had to work extra every day or got fired just so some Joe Blow can brag that he got his hard drive for $20 less?

[Added 4/20/07] Lest you think the consumer wins, think again. What we as consumers get out of this is bad design or bad quality control or bad customer service and support, or any combination of these three. The companies cutting prices have to skimp on something. You can’t rush things, cut prices AND provide a wonderfully designed and reliable products with great customer support. If you don’t believe me, see Julie’s comment below.

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