Reporter's Roundtable Ep. 128: Rafe's Outie Awards
It has been a fantastic run, but it's time for me to try something new, so I'm leaving CNET. This is my last post for this great company, at least in my current role as Editor at Large.
Instead of boring everyone with the usual departure platitudes or a history of illustrious achievements, I thought I'd give out a few awards to companies, products, and ideas that I covered for CNET, ideas that have stayed with me long after I wrote about them. So here they are: The Rafe Needleman I'm Outta Here Awards. The Outies. There are 10, of course.
If you're wondering where to find me next: Evernote. I'm going to be a developer advocate for this great company, which, if you've followed my work over the years, you know I really believe in. I'll also be writing -- with editorial independence, they tell me -- about new tech concepts that I see, best ideas for entrepreneurs (from my new vantage point), and productivity. Read more on the Evernote blog. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow me on Twitter, or Facebook, or Google+.
And now, for the first -- and hopefully last -- time ever...
1. Best customer experience: Apple
I am not a fanboy. I am not a fanboy. I am not a fanboy. Maybe if I say it enough you'll eventually believe it. But even when the Apple products I buy fail me completely (which is often), I still love the company, because its customer service and repair experience is so painless. That's right: Apple hardware is horribly unreliable. And I keep buying it. Good job, Apple. I hate myself.
2. Best online retailer: Everyone's refurb and outlet store
Unless you like paying for packaging, you don't have to pay full price for many tech hardware items: laptops, TVs, DVRs, you name it. Buy refurbished units. Usually they're just as good as brand-new items, look just as shiny, and come with the same warranty. They might be half a spec out of date. It's worth it.
3. Worst pervasive technology:
These are my awards, so I get to throw darts as I want, and 3D is one bubble I'd like to pop. Yes, it's amazing. For most of you. But for some of us, all 3D TV and movies do is give us headaches.
On the plus side, the non-3D showings of 3D movies are hardly ever crowded.
4. Best new idea for e-mail: Self-deleting messages
Unread e-mails are barnacles. They stick around in your in-box, just clogging things up, taking up space, and possibly slowing things down. And many e-mails, especially commercial messages from companies you do business with, are pointless after a short period of time. So why do they stick around? They don't have to.
5. The simplicity award: Trello
Simple wins. Sure, there are apps and services and gadgets that do everything. But we are all busy. We are overloaded with multiple ways to do things, options to consider, and other cognitive noise. That's why the most successful products these days strip down the cruft and focus on the elemental experience. I can think of many examples: Sparrow (recently acquired by Google); Path; Instagram; Groupiter (my review). But one Web app -- still relatively unknown -- sticks with me as having a brilliantly simple and fluid interface for what is usually a cluttered and unpleasant thing to deal with: Task management. The app is Trello. I recommend it.
6. Most anticipated product (by me): Space Monkey
Sometimes, bizarrely, complicated solutions to simple problems do have a certain elegance. Especially when this complexity leads to increased robustness. Want an example? Evolution.
My favorite example of a complex solution to a simple problem is Space Monkey, an upcoming product that will offer cloud storage with more speed than Dropbox, dramatically better prices, and potentially more data safety -- or so the founders say. How? By creating a mesh of storage access points, with some of the points being hardware that resides on customers' local networks. Intellectually, I love the idea behind this product. I am eager to see if it really delivers.
See also another wacky storage play: Bitcasa
7. Best thing the government has done for startups: The JOBS Act
For the most part, the U.S. government has kept its hands off the Internet and out of technology. The bigger the tech economy gets, though, the more intervention we get. And sometimes it's actually in the right direction. The JOBS Act makes it easier for startups to raise money from the general public ("crowdfunding"), not just from rich tech investors. I covered the story in some depth and am aware of the imperfections in its new laws, but overall it's a very positive step that could help small teams with creative ideas get them off the ground.
What I'm waiting for now: A legal revolution that really makes sense of patents. Not holding my breath on that one.
8. Government overreach award: California's smartphone sales tax
With tax rules like this, how is it possible California is in the revenue hole it is? Here's what I'm talking about: When you buy a smartphone in this state, even if it's subsidized by the mobile carrier down to zero dollars, you have to pay sales tax for the full retail sales price, a price you cannot negotiate for or control. I had some tax wonks try to explain to me why that's fair, but it still sounds like state-sponsored robbery.
9. Best bargain app: Pretty much all of them
You have to be insane to pay $50 for a simple utility for OS X, right? The whole operating system costs less than that. But Sharemouse, which just lets you share a keyboard and a mouse between two side-by-side computers, is actually not overpriced, even at $24.95 per computer (and you need at least two licenses for it to work). True, I still won't buy it, but the economics of software are unique. What I was forced to learn after an argument with the creator of this little utility is that software pricing is perfectly elastic: Charge more, you sell fewer licenses. Charge less, sell more. Total sales revenue: Constant. That's just cool.
However, sell more units and you have to support more users, and that gets expensive. Those $1.99 apps we like can kill their publishers. It can actually make better business sense to price some consumers out of your product, even if, as it is with software, the cost of distributing the app to each new user is nearly zero. The sad conclusion, for everyone except for economics professors? Read the story I wrote.
10. The boy was he wrong award: Rafe Needleman
Right before the iPad came out, in 2009, I wrote what I thought was a logical and realistic treatise on why tablets wouldn't sell. Oops. To make matters worse, I predicted that the CrunchPad (later called the JooJoo, and after that just "the lovely glass serving tray in Rafe's office") could actually sell better than an Apple tablet if it undercut Apple's price by a few hundred bucks.
I am not proud of this prediction. I just hope the arguments I put forth were thought-provoking and entertaining.
I'm also delighted I was wrong, because the iPad is a staggeringly great product. For me, this tablet has changed my relationship with media and games, much for the better. It's also leading yet another revolution in technology design. It's great to watch. And write about. But smartly, next time.
So thanks, CNET, for a fun ride. Thanks, readers, for reading. It's all a writer wants. For now, I'm outta here.