Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Remix Time: I Don’t Think About You (Dazed Mix)

Posted in music, remixes by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Every once in a while, I like to remix tracks. Here’s my Dazed Mix of I Don’t Think About You by Kelly Clarkson. This is dance pop mix of her track of the same name. Credits: A capella vocal by Kelly Clarkson, backing music track by Klearnote.

The original song is on her 2017 album, Meaning of Life. This is a very good album by Kelly. The original mix of I Don’t Think About You has relaxed piano backing track. On this album, there are also a number of other very good tracks including Love So Soft, Medicine and Would You Call That Love.

Pick up your copy of Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life at iTunes or Amazon.

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Can Tesla survive?

Posted in business, california by commorancy on March 28, 2018

Investors have been overly exuberant about Telsa. By that I mean, because Tesla set up shop in Silicon Valley rather than Detroit, many investors see Tesla as a ‘tech company’. Folks outside the Bay Area, however, see Tesla as a car company. Let’s explore.

Car Company vs Tech Company

For whatever reason, too many people see Tesla as a tech startup. The fact is, Tesla is in no way a tech startup. It is a car company. Tesla has, so far, provided no new tech to the world. Cars, in fact, are not in any way new technology. Worse, there’s nothing new about Tesla’s cars that have not been done before. The only claim to fame that Tesla has is its partnership with the Lotus design team to design and help produce the Tesla Roadster. If the Roadster looks amazingly like a Lotus Elise, now you know why. But, paying for someone else to design your vehicle’s interior and exterior isn’t innovative, it just means you have money.

Let’s also consider even though Tesla decided to go electric in its vehicles early on, it is by no means the first electric vehicle to market. Tesla’s decision wasn’t without a significant amount of peril or adversity, adversity that continues to this day. For example, gas powered cars have huge infrastructure around the globe to buy fuel. In 5-8 minutes, you’re fueled up and ready to go again for hundreds of miles on a single tank. Unfortunately, charging electric vehicle batteries is a laboriously slow process by comparison. Sure, even with a Tesla Supercharger, you’re still stuck charging your vehicle for at least 30 minutes to get a 65% charge (about 170 miles). If you want a 100% charge, you’ll be there a whole lot longer. If it’s not a Supercharger, then plan to spend a whole lot more time there.

If the 30 or so minutes you must wait is at a time when it’s convenient (i.e., you’re stopping for dinner anyway), then that’s great. If it happens to be when you’re pressed for time, you’re not going to be a happy camper. If you don’t plan your trip properly or if you get tripped up by construction, you may find yourself off course without a charging station handy. Then where are you?

So far, all of the things I’ve mentioned above have nothing to do with tech and everything to do with usability. Specifically, car usability. More specifically, car usability with regards to electric vehicles which charge slowly and offer very little nationwide infrastructure. This is the adversity that Tesla is up against.

Pushing Boulders Uphill

Tesla has a long way to go before the US has electric infrastructure at a saturation where electric cars can even come close to replacing gas powered cars. That’s not to say it can’t happen sometime in the future, but Tesla is pretty much alone in this and has given up several times along the way. Yes, Nissan, Toyota, Mini and Chevy have all introduced electric vehicles, but they are the outliers. They aren’t pushing for nationwide charging coverage. These vehicles have not yet become the bread-and-butter vehicles that keep these brands afloat. Every car manufacturer, other than Tesla, sells gas powered vehicles. With Tesla’s electric-only approach, it is sink or swim… and currently, Tesla is pretty much just treading water. Tesla hasn’t even tried hedging its bets by producing an alternative fuel assist hybrid to augment its slow recharge times and offer a vehicle with much longer distance. In fact, by not embracing such a strategy seems to be terribly remiss on their part.

For Tesla, this should be considered self-imposed adversity. Why not invest in producing a car that accepts natural gas, gasoline, alcohol or even hydrogen? I think we’ve already seen that Tesla has pretty much pushed the limits of its electric vehicle paradigm as far as it can go.

Expensive Bells and Whistles

I can hear the throngs of Tesla owners now… groaning at this article. Wake up! You bought a $100k commuter car. Sure, it has that nice 17″ (now dated) display in the middle of the dash and a few interior niceties, but it’s a car. A car is a car is a car. It takes you from point A to point B. Does it matter what bells and whistles it offers inside? You’re not buying the functionality of the technology, you’re buying the functionality of the car. Worse, it’s not that this technology hasn’t already existed in a car before Tesla and it will definitely exist in many cars in the future. Just look at the Prius. It’s not 17″, but it definitely had an in-dash display from the beginning.

Don’t be fooled by the Silicon Valley hype. Tesla isn’t a tech company, it is a car company. They don’t offer innovative technical solutions or innovative technical products. They offer a car (or rather, many models of cars). A car, I might add, that is from a brand that has yet to prove itself as a long term car brand. Let’s take the Saturn car brand as a prime example. When Saturn came about, its claim to fame was all of the hand-holding and attention they gave new car owners. Where is Saturn now? Dead. The company ceased producing cars in 2009 and closed its doors in 2010. Its sales model wasn’t sustainable. Its cars were mediocre.

Can Tesla Survive?

Is Tesla’s model sustainable? That depends on Elon Musk. Once Elon finally admits to himself, his employees and the rest of the world that Tesla is, in fact, a car company and not a tech company, he will be able to realize what he needs to do to take Tesla to the next level. The problem right now is that many investors in Tesla see them as a tech stock, not a car company. Tesla is not a tech stock. Let me repeat that. Tesla IS NOT a tech stock. Don’t fool yourself that Tesla is anything other than a car company, like any company out of Detroit or Japan or anywhere else in the world where car manufacturing exists.

Fundamentally, Tesla has been battling the infrastructure issue. Elon simply hasn’t been able to gain any substantial traction for Tesla’s electric plan throughout the continental United States. Sure, there are Tesla Supercharges in select areas, areas requiring you to plan your trip well in advance to ensure you can find chargers all along the way. If you find yourself off the Supercharger path, you could literally end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no way to get a charge. If your car happens to break down, then what? Better have AAA with its longest distance towing option as you might find yourself sitting in the cab of a tow truck being hauled to the next Supercharger station.

Infrastructure has not been a friend at all to Tesla. Let’s understand a little better why. Electric cars, while they are clean vehicles, are not clean on the environment. Instead of pushing the pollution out of the tailpipe, it is now being pushed out of the exhaust stacks at electric generation facilities. Tesla (and other electric car makers) need to understand that the pollution doesn’t stop, it just moves to a different location. If California’s electricity were produced from 100% clean, renewable resources, I’d be writing something different here (at least for California). Instead, that’s a pipe dream. California still receives much of its electric generation from fossil fuels which is used to charge up a Tesla (or any electric plugin vehicle), less than ideal for pollution. This is why the government hasn’t hopped on board with bringing electric infrastructure to the forefront. On top of that, there’s no incentive from gasoline producers to push this agenda. So, where would those incentives come from? The government (and ultimately, all of us via our tax dollars). I don’t want to have to pay to build a huge electric infrastructure raising my taxes.

Tesla’s Failures

Ultimately, Tesla had planned to introduce a battery swap program to help reduce charge times. However, Tesla had to admit that this was a failed pipe dream. They were forced to drop the idea entirely. This is where Tesla made its first and most important mistake. Apple releases products that it feels are good for users. They don’t care if people like or dislike them. That was Jobs’s MO. He decided on behalf of the public what we should like. If you didn’t personally like it, you went someplace else. Tesla should have introduced the battery swap option in spite of the complaints, costs or problems. Push the idea out regardless. Drive the market to adopt the idea instead of caving into market pressures. This is where Elon completely differs from Jobs and Apple. Though, Jobs was arguably a marketing visionary. Elon is, at best, a huckster. There is literally nothing visionary at all about the Tesla cars being produced. Modern yes, visionary no.

Once you understand the difference between the words “modern” and “visionary”, you’ll quickly understand that what makes a Tesla vehicle attractive is its amenities. These same types of amenities are those that drive the sales of Lotus, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and even Lexus… i.e., luxury car brands. Tesla is less about being an electric vehicle and more about becoming a luxury car brand. Luxury is why you buy Tesla. That’s why you buy any type of luxury car. Again, don’t kid yourself. It’s not the technology, it’s the luxury. Luxury, I might add, that comes with a fairly steep price (both monetarily and time wise). Yes, it costs around $60k-$100k, but that’s not the half of it. You also spend a fair amount of time not even being able to use the vehicle because it’s hooked to the charger. With a gas powered vehicle, its downtime is measured in minutes. With Tesla, its downtime is measured in hours. When I say downtime, I’m strictly talking about the time it takes to ‘refuel’ it, not mechanical breakdowns which are a whole different bag.

Since most people don’t have Superchargers available at their homes, they are subject to longer charge cycles. This means you need to plan for this. Don’t come home on low charge and forget to charge it. You’ll be in a world of hurt the following day when you need to get to work. Tesla is a car brand that isn’t completely worry free. You must take the time to plan your day and when to charge. If you forget even once, you’re going to be late for work.

Tesla as a Commuter Car

Considering all of the above and the ~256 mile range on a charge makes Tesla not ideal for long distance travel, at least not without proper trip planning. It’s a great about-town car, but for long distance travel, I’d suggest owning a vehicle with a gas charger. A gas charger vehicle means you can stop at any gas station to refuel the power generator. Our alternative fuel infrastructure may not be optimal today, but it is the infrastructure we are stuck with for the moment. Trying to find alternative fuels like propane, hydrogen or natural gas could leave you just as stranded as electric alone. With a gas car, you can travel anywhere there is a gas station and refuel in minutes. This infrastructure is far and wide and everywhere.

Ultimately, this lack of electric infrastructure relegates Tesla vehicles to commuter cars as their best use case. For me, justifying spending $60-100k for a commuter car is way too much. Consider that for those of us who also live in apartment complexes means leaving our expensive Tesla vehicles sitting idle on dark parking lots to fully charge, then walking away. Not ideal. You pretty much have to own a home and install a Tesla specific charger to get decent charge times and know your car is safe. It’s also fairly inconvenient leaving your car sitting on a parking lot for several hours only to have to go back when it’s done and pick it up.

Many apartment complexes are way behind the times, but they are not the exception. Let’s consider the infrastructure that Tesla has built since the first Roadster was introduced. Let’s just say, it’s not much. It’s better than it was, but it is no where near where it should have been at this point. This is the primary reason Tesla will fail, unless they change their ideas and embrace the fact that they are not only car company, but a luxury car brand. This is the reason other car companies will do better than Tesla with their everyday electric vehicles. Tesla is a luxury brand that only families of a certain affluence can afford. Vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are the everyday electric cars. These are vehicles that are both affordable and offer better value for the money than Tesla’s short distance expensive luxury vehicle.

Oh, but the Model X has gull wings you say? Really, that’s something you’re going to argue? Ok, let’s argue it. If you have kids, these doors are entirely unsafe for little fingers. Sure, Tesla may claim safety features, but do you really trust your kid’s little fingers against an electric door closing mechanism? Go ahead, I dare you.

Safety Track Record

Tesla is a fairly new car company founded in 2003. It never produced cars before 2006. Its first vehicle is the Tesla Roadster. Tesla has had difficulties keeping up with demand for the Roadster. Its first commercially successful vehicle was the Model S introduced in 2008, Tesla’s second model vehicle. Other models have since followed. And yes, I realize the ~$33,000 Model 3 is on the way… but they’re having production problems with this model. It could be years before you see your preorder.

Basically, what Tesla is making is all new without the benefit of years of manufacturing experience. This means that testing safety features in its vehicles may not be a top priority. Let’s consider the safety of lithium-ion batteries when in a crash. Actually, let’s scale that back a little. Just by poking a hole into your cell phone’s lithium-ion battery will cause noxious fumes, possible fire and/or explosion. Let’s scale that up to electric cars. If the battery in your Tesla is compromised due to an accident, you could easily find your car on fire, electrocuted or in an explosion. While this is not exclusive to Tesla’s electric cars, the size of Tesla’s batteries could make them particularly unsafe. It could also mean that if you’re injured in a Tesla, first responders may need to secure their own personal safety against your vehicle’s battery before using the jaws-of-life to extract you from the vehicle. This precious time lost could mean the difference between life or death.

You’re exposing your family’s safety to Tesla each and every day you drive it. Ford, Chevy, GM and even Toyota are brands that have existed for decades. These companies fully understand the concept of proper safety design and of recalls, lawsuits and defects. Unfortunately, Tesla has only had just a few years to gain this knowledge. Yes, they have hired seasoned industry vets to help get their vehicles to be their safest quickly, but the question isn’t what they added, but what they missed. They’re a new car company with new growing pains. Sure, you can hire expertise, but can you be sure of what you missed? Who really knows? Tesla has been relatively lucky that they have not yet seen an egregious safety failure on all of their vehicles. The question is, have they done it right or have they been lucky or it is just a matter of time?

Worse, could Tesla survive such an huge safety recall in all of their vehicles? Who really knows? Sure, their company is highly valuated, but that doesn’t mean they have the cash to support a massive lawsuit or an expensive recall. Ultimately, when you buy into Tesla, you’re buying into all of this. You should think long and hard about whether this is the car for you. Don’t buy it because it drives nice or because the seats are comfortable or because dashboard looks cool, buy it because it makes the most sense for your budget, the way you intend to use it and your family’s safety.

Can Tesla survive? This depends on whether they can truly get beyond their ‘tech company’ mentality. Tesla is a car company. At some point, they’ll have to admit this. Once they admit this, then they can truly begin to take their cars to the next level. If not, then perhaps Tesla is just a flash in the carburetor.

CanDo: An Amiga Programming Language

Posted in computers, history by commorancy on March 27, 2018

At one point in time, I owned a Commodore Amiga. This was back when I was in college. I first owned an Amiga 500, then later an Amiga 3000. I loved spending my time learning new things about the Amiga and I was particularly interested in programming it. While in college, I came across a programming language by the name of CanDo. Let’s explore.

HyperCard

Around the time that CanDo came to exist on the Amiga, Apple had already introduced HyperCard on the Mac. It was a ‘card’ based programming language. What that means is that each screen (i.e., card) had a set of objects such has fields for entering data, placement of visual images or animations, buttons and whatever other things you could jam onto that card. Behind each element on the card, you could attach written programming functions() and conditionals (if-then-else, do…while, etc). For example, if you had an animation on the screen, you could add a play button. If you click the play button, a function would be called to run the animation just above the button. You could even add buttons like pause, slow motion, fast forward and so on.

CanDo was an interpreted object oriented language written by a small software company named Inovatronics out of Dallas. I want to say it was released around 1989. Don’t let the fact that it was an interpreted language fool you. CanDo was fast for an interpreted language (by comparison, I’d say it was proportionally faster than the first version of Java), even on the then 68000 CPU series. The CanDo creators took the HyperCard idea, expanded it and created their own version on the Amiga. While it supported very similar ideas to HyperCard, it certainly wasn’t identical. In fact, it was a whole lot more powerful than HyperCard ever dreamed of being. HyperCard was a small infant next to this product. My programmer friend and I would yet come to find exactly how powerful the CanDo language could be.

CanDo

Amiga owners only saw what INOVATronics wanted them to see in this product. A simplistic and easy to use user interface consisting of a ‘deck’ (i.e, deck of cards) concept where you could add buttons or fields or images or sounds or animation to one of the cards in that deck. They were trying to keep this product as easy to use as possible. It was, for all intents and purposes, a drag-and-drop programming language, but closely resembled HyperCard in functionality, not language syntax. For the most part, you didn’t need to write a stitch of code to make most things work. It was all just there. You pull a button over and a bunch of pre-programmed functions could be placed onto the button and attached to other objects already on the screen. As a language, it was about as simple as you could make it. I commend the INOVATronics guys on the user-friendly aspect of this system. This was, hands down, one of the easiest visual programming languages to learn on the Amiga. They nailed that part of this software on the head.

However, if you wanted to write complex code, you most certainly could do this as well. The underlying language was completely full featured and easy to write. The syntax checker was amazing and would help you fix just about any problem in your code. The language had a full set of typical conditional constructs including for loops, if…then…else, do…while, while…until and even do…while…until (very unusual to see this one). It was a fully stocked mostly free form programming language, not unlike C, but easier. If you’re interested in reading the manual for CanDo, it is now located at this end of this section below.

As an object oriented language, internal functions were literally attached to objects (usually screen elements). For example, a button. The button would then have a string of code or functions that drove its internal functionality. You could even dip into that element’s functions to get data out (from the outside). Like most OO languages, the object itself is opaque. You can’t see its functions names or use them directly, only that object that owns that code can. However, you could ask the object to use one of its function and return data back to you. Of course, you had to know that function existed. In fact, this would be the first time I would be introduced to the concept of object oriented programming in this way. There was no such thing as free floating code in this language. All code had to exist as an attachment to some kind of object. For example, it was directly attached to the deck itself, to one of the cards in the deck, to an element on one of the cards or to an action associated with that object (mouse, joystick button or movement, etc).

CanDo also supported RPC calls. This was incredibly important for communication between two separately running CanDo deck windows. If you had one deck window with player controls and another window that had a video you wanted to play, you could send a message from one window to another to perform an action in that window, like play, pause, etc. There were many reasons to need many windows open each communicating with each other.

The INOVATronics guys really took programming the Amiga to a whole new level… way beyond anything in HyperCard. It was so powerful, in fact, there was virtually nothing stock on the Amiga it couldn’t control. Unfortunately, it did have one downside. It didn’t have the ability to import system shared libraries on AmigaDOS. If you installed a new database engine on your Amiga with its own shared function library, there was no way to access those functions in CanDo by linking it in. This was probably CanDo’s single biggest flaw. It was not OS extensible. However, for what CanDo was designed to do and the amount of control that was built into it by default, it was an amazing product.

I’d also like to mention that TCP/IP was just coming into existence with modems on the Amiga. I don’t recall how much CanDo supported network sockets or network programming. It did support com port communication, but I can’t recall if it supported TCP/IP programming. I have no doubt that had INOVATronics stayed in business and CanDo progressed beyond its few short years in existence, TCP/IP support would have been added.

CanDo also supported Amiga Rexx (ARexx) to add additional functionality to CanDO which would offer additional features that CanDo didn’t support directly. Though, ARexx worked, it wasn’t as convenient as having a feature supported directly by CanDo.

Here are the CanDo manuals if you’re interested in checking out more about it:

Here’s a snippet from the CanDo main manual:

CanDo is a revolutionary, Amiga specific, interactive software authoring system. Its unique purpose is to let you create real Amiga software without any programming experience. CanDo is extremely friendly to you and your Amiga. Its elegant design lets you take advantage of the Amiga’s sophisticated operating system without any technical knowledge. CanDo makes it easy to use the things that other programs generate – pictures, sounds, animations, and text files. In a minimal amount of time, you can make programs that are specially suited to your needs. Equipped with CanDo, a paint program, a sound digitizer, and a little bit of imagination, you can produce standalone applications that rival commercial quality software. These applications may be given to friends or sold for profit without the need for licenses or fees.

As you can see from this snippet, INOVATronics thought of it as an ‘Authoring System’ not as a language. CanDo itself might have been, but the underlying language was most definitely a programming language.

CanDo Player

The way CanDo worked its creation process was that you would create your CanDo deck and program it in the deck creator. Once your deck was completed, you only needed the CanDo player to run your deck. The player ran with much less memory than the entire CanDo editor system. The player was also freely redistributable. However, you could run your decks from the CanDo editor if you preferred. The CanDo Player could also be appended to the deck to become a pseudo-executable that allowed you to distribute your executable software to other people. Also, anything you created in CanDo was fully redistributable without any strings to CanDo. You couldn’t distribute CanDo, but you could distribute anything you created in it.

The save files for decks were simple byte compiled packages. Instead of having to store humanly readable words and phrases, each language keyword had a corresponding byte code. This made storing decks much smaller than keeping all of the human readable code there. It also made it a lot more tricky to read this code if you opened the deck up in a text editor. It wasn’t totally secure, but it was better than having your code out there for all to see when you distributed a deck. You would actually have to own CanDo to decompile the code back into a humanly readable format… which was entirely possible.

The CanDo language was way too young to support more advanced code security features, like password encryption before executing the deck, even though PGP was a thing at that time. INOVATronics had more to worry about than securing your created deck’s code from prying eyes, though they did improve this as they upgraded versions. I also think the INOVATronics team was just a little naïve about how easily it would be to crack open CanDo, let alone user decks.

TurboEditor — The product that never was

A programmer friend who was working towards his CompSci masters owned an Amiga, and also owned CanDo. In fact, he introduced me to it. He had been poking around with CanDo and found that it supported three very interesting functions. It had the ability to  decompile its own code into humanly readable format to allow modification, syntactically check the changes and recompile it, all while still running. Yes, you read that right. It supported on-the-fly code modification. Remember this, it’s important.

Enter TurboEditor. Because of this one simple little thing (not so little actually) that my friend found, we were able to decompile the entire CanDo program and figure out how it worked. Remember that important thing? Yes, that’s right, CanDo is actually written in itself and it could actually modify pieces that are currently executing. Let me clarify this just a little. One card could modify another card, then pull that card into focus. The actual card wasn’t currently executing, but the deck was. In fact, we came to find that CanDo was merely a facade. We also found that there was a very powerful object oriented, fully reentrant, self-modifying, programming language under that facade of a UI. In fact, this is how CanDo’s UI worked. Internally, it could take an element, decompile it, modify it and then recompile it right away and make it go live, immediately adding the updated functionality to a button or slider.

While CanDo could modify itself, it never did this. Instead, it utilized a parent-child relationship. It always created a child sandbox for user-created decks. This sandbox area is where the user built new CanDo Decks. Using this sandbox approach, this is how CanDo built and displayed a preview of your deck’s window. The sandbox would then be saved to a deck file and then executed as necessary. In fact, it would be one of these sandbox areas that we would use to build TurboEditor, in TurboEditor.

Anyway, together, we took this find one step further and created an alternative CanDo editor that we called TurboEditor, so named because you could get into it and edit your buttons and functions much, much faster than CanDo’s somewhat sluggish and clunky UI. In fact, we took a demo of our product to INOVATronics’s Dallas office and pitched the idea of this new editor to them. Let’s just say, that team was lukewarm and not very receptive to the idea initially. While they were somewhat impressed with our tenacity in unraveling CanDo to the core, they were also a bit dismayed and a little perturbed by it. Though, they warmed to the idea a little. Still, we pressed on hoping we could talk them into the idea of releasing TurboEditor as an alternative script editor… as an adjunct to CanDo.

Underlying Language

After meeting with and having several discussions with the INOVATronics team, we found that the underlying language actually has a different name. The underlying language name was AV1. Even then, everyone called it by ‘CanDo’ over that name. Suffice it to say that I was deeply disappointed that INOVATronics never released the underlying fully opaque, object oriented, reentrant, self-modifying on-the-fly AV1 language or its spec. If they had, it would have easily become the go-to deep programming language of choice for the Amiga. Most people at the time had been using C if they wanted to dive deep. However, INOVATronics had a product poised to take over for Amiga’s C in nearly every way (except for the shared library thing which could have been resolved).

I asked the product manager while at the INOVATronics headquarters about releasing the underlying language and he specifically said they had no plans to release it in that way. I always felt that was shortsighted. In hindsight for them, it probably was. If they had released it, it could have easily become CanDo Pro and they could sold it for twice or more the price. They just didn’t want to get into that business for some reason.

I also spoke with several other folks while I was at INOVATronics. One of them was the programmer who actually built much of CanDo (or, I should say, the underlying language). He told me that the key pieces of CanDo he built in assembly (the compiler portions) and the rest was built with just enough C to bootstrap the language into existence. The C was also needed to link in the necessary Amiga shared library functions to control audio, animation, graphics and so on. This new language was very clever and very useful for at least building CanDo itself.

It has been confirmed by Jim O’Flaherty, Jr. (formerly Technical Support for INOVATronics) via a comment that the underlying language name was, in fact, AV1. This AV portion meaning audio visual. This new, at the time, underlying object oriented Amiga programming language was an entirely newly built language and was designed specifically to control the Amiga computer.

Demise of INOVAtronics

After we got what seemed like a promising response from the INOVATronics team, we left their offices. We weren’t sure it would work out, but we kept hoping we would be able to bring TurboEditor to the market through INOVATronics.

Unfortunately, our hopes dwindled. As weeks turned into months waiting for the go ahead for TurboEditor, we decided it wasn’t going to happen. We did call them periodically to get updates, but nothing came of that. We eventually gave up, but not because we didn’t want to release TurboEditor, but because INOVATronics was apparently having troubles staying afloat. Apparently, their CanDo flagship product at the time wasn’t able to keep the lights on for the company. In fact, they were probably floundering when we visited them. I will also say their offices were a little bit of a dive. They weren’t in the best area of Dallas and in an older office building. The office was clean enough, but the office space just seemed a little bit well worn.

Within a year of meeting the INOVATronics guys, the entire company folded. No more CanDo. It was also a huge missed opportunity for me in more ways than one. I could have gone down to INOVATronics, at the time, and bought the rights to the software on a fire sale and resurrected it as TurboEditor (or the underlying language). Hindsight is 20/20.

We probably could have gone ahead and released TurboEditor after the demise of INOVATronics, but we had no way to support the CanDo product without having their code. We would have had to buy the rights to the software code for that.

So, there you have it. My quick history of CanDo on the Amiga.

If you were one of the programmers who happened to work on the CanDo project at INOVATronics, please leave a comment below with any information you may have. I’d like to expand this article with any information you’re willing to provide about the history of CanDo, this fascinating and lesser known Amiga programming language.

 

Toys R Us: Say Goodbye to an Era

Posted in botch, business, tanking by commorancy on March 14, 2018

tru-logoFor many, we grew up with Toys Я Us as the go to place to find that cool new toy, game, doll, action figure, Teddy Ruxpin, train set, learning toy, crayons, movie or even video games. Times are a changin’ folks and Toys R Us now finds itself way less than one Barbie away from permanent closure. Let’s explore.

Update from the News Desk — 2018-03-14

Toys R Us headquarters has apparently informed all US and UK employees on Wednesday, March 14th that all US and UK locations would be closed, a move that would lose 33,000 jobs. This would be one of the biggest retailer liquidations. CEO David Brandon intended to file paperwork to begin the liquidation proceedings on Wednesday.

From small to BIG to defunct

In the 70s, I remember toy stores primarily consisting of smaller retailers in malls, usually carrying Lincoln logs, wooden toys or learning toys. While I didn’t mind visiting these places, they felt more like a library than a toy store. They also didn’t carry much of the things that I liked. It wouldn’t be until sometime the mid-70s when a Toy R Us opened near my house. That’s when toy shopping all changed, at least for me.

I’m sure my parents hated taking me to Toys R Us,  just as so many parents do. For us kids, it was like a day at Disneyland: a gold mine, a treasure trove, a place of dreams. Unfortunately, the parents were having none of it… or at least, as little as they could walk out of the store carrying. Good on them, but that didn’t make Toys R Us any less magical to a 8-10 year old. We loved it, we loved going there and we especially loved it when we got to take something home with us.

Geoffrey

I was never a super big giraffe fan, but Geoffrey was a fun and charming mascot constantly pointing out cool new things in the store. I would come to see Geoffrey as cute mascot designed to help me find new stuff. Not always, but a good bit of the time. Sometimes he was just present, like Mickey Mouse. That Giraffe always made me smile because I knew that I was at that magical place, like Disneyland but local. Over the years, Geoffrey began being used less and less by TRU, but he’s still considered their mascot.

Every once in a while, Toys R Us would offer an enter-to-win a fill-your-cart shopping spree. I always wanted to win one of those as a child, but alas never did. To think what I would have filled my cart with. The mind boggles, if only because some of those toys are considered highly collectible today. Though, those toys most assuredly would not have remained closed in their packaging after making their way home.

Growing Up

As I grew into my 20s, got my own car and job, my relationship with Toys R Us changed. No longer was it that magical place, but it now had firmly become a store and I was a consumer. Still, it was a place to go to find that hot new toy that everyone’s talking about. It also became the place to find computers and video games. If I couldn’t find it at Target or Kmart or, later, Walmart, I could almost certainly find it at Toys R Us or Kaybee or Children’s Palace (competitors at the time) and to a much lesser degree FAO Schwarz. Toys R Us was always the first place to go, then the others as they were less reliable.

Dominoes

As the competitors fell over one at a time, first Children’s Palace in 90s, FAO Schwarz in early 00s, then in the middle 00’s, Kaybee Toys, Toys R Us was still standing and, in 2009 would acquire the FAO Schwarz brand, but would sell it off in 2014. It was (and currently is) the place to go to find all things toys. Unlike Target and Walmart that choose to stock limited toy items, Toys R Us (like the previous Children’s Palance and Kaybee) still carries aisle after aisle of wide ranging toys you can only find at Toys R Us. You simply can’t find this selection of toy items at a discount department store. This is why I always ended up at Toys R Us in search of fun, exciting new things.

The Mistakes

Throughout the later years, I’ve grown a love-hate relationship with the Toys R Us chain. Not only because I worked there for a short time while in my 20s, but also because the management does a lot of things that don’t make sense. For example, Babies R Us. For a time, Toys R Us stores devoted half of their space to baby goods. I don’t have a baby, so there’s no interest in that. Yet, Toys R Us decided to kill half of their store space to devote to these products. This meant, less space for toys, games and other items.

I understand that the management wanted to expand their selection into babyland, but it was a mistake to take away valuable Toys R Us aisle space to devote to all-things-baby. This, in my opinion, was one of the biggest mistakes the Toys R Us management foisted upon its stores. That was, until they finally spun Babies R Us into its own stores and gave it its own space.

Later, the management decided to do away with separate Babies R Us stores and chose to abut the two stores together for one seamless one-store experience. That was at least better than taking away shelf space from an already cramped toy store, but even that was unnecessary and, in my opinion, a mistake. They can be next to each other, but walled off and separate stores with separate stock and separate staff. I know why they did chose to hook them together. They did it so they could use one set of checkout lanes, one set of cashiers and one set of staff to stock both stores.

The X

At around the time that Babies R Us was coming into its own as a separate store chain, Toys R Us decided to change its shelving layout. Instead of the more logical long rows running from the front to the back of the store (with middle store aisle breaks) which made it easy to find everything, the store layout designer decided to change the aisles to be side to side and then create X shaped rows in the middle of the store. Not only were these rows much harder to navigate, the layout of the aisles were crippled as a result. This layout made finding things incredibly hard and it seemed like they had less shelf space.

Not only was everything now moved around haphazardly, it made finding what you’re looking for overly hard. Meaning, now you had to navigate the whole store looking at everything just to find that thing.

Maybe the designers thought this was a good idea? It wasn’t. This is the second mistake from Toys R Us management.

Overbuying and Stocking the Wrong Toys

I don’t know how many times I visited Toys R Us in the 90s only to find the same toys every time I visited, sometimes months apart. These we affectionately call peg warmers. This mistake continues to plague Toys R Us to this day. Not only did Toys R Us have incredible buying power way back when, they just didn’t use it to their advantage. Instead, they would continually overbuy on dud toys and not buy enough on the hot toys.

You can’t sell toys that you don’t have in stock. For example, Cabbage Patch kids. When that craze hit, they couldn’t keep them on the shelves. You’d think Toys R Us could have negotiated with the manufacturer and buy 10x the amount they originally bought… simply so they could fill the demand. Sure, there might be a drought while the manufacturer created more, but eventually they would have enough stock quickly to satisfy demand. Alas, they didn’t and the shelves remained bare until the toys were so cold you couldn’t even give them away. Too little, too late.

Further, Toys R Us needed to let the local managers order stock for their specific location to stock toys that are regionally hot. Not every toy sells the same in every store, yet Toys R Us felt the need to send cookie cutter stock out to every single store. If you walked into a Toys R Us in any state, you’d see identical stock. Each store manager needed to be given free reign to specifically order stock in sizes that made sense for amount of local demand they were seeing for a given toy item. If they couldn’t keep a specific skateboard stocked, then the manager should be able to order the proper amount to cover the local demand from their store. In fact, stores that couldn’t sell the item should have shuffled the stock over to stores where the demand was high. That’s smart inventory management. Nope.

Store managers should also be able to nix slow selling items from their shelves and replace it with hotter selling toys. Why continue to carry that obscure toy that you can’t even clearance out when you can sell 100x as many Tickle Me Elmos? Having great selection is fine as long as you’re not stocking 50 of an item you can’t even give away. Again, smart inventory management people. Stock them in small quantities, sure, but not in the quantities that each store was getting. Shuffle extra stock to other stores that have none. Remember, I worked there, I saw the stock amounts in the stock room.

Nope. Toys R Us continued to make this mistake year after year.

Over-expansion

Nearly every business thinks they should open as many stores as physically possible. But, you can’t do this when most of your stores are operating in the RED. Toys R Us was no exception. This chain continually felt the need to open new stores rather than trying to shore up their existing stores and get them each to an individually profitable status. If the management had stopped their expansion plans and, instead, focused their efforts on making each store profitable by the end of Q1 each year, Toys R Us would not be in this predicament.

Dated Store Displays

Not too long ago (perhaps early 00s), Toys R Us did away with the X aisle layout and converted them back into horizontal rows once again. However, the aisles now run left to right in-store rather than the original front to back design (which was arguably its best floor plan). Unfortunately, their fixtures are all incredibly dated pegboard and 70s style metal fixtures. They look like they’re straight out of a 70s store… even when the store is brand new. Maybe these are the cheapest fixtures they can buy? No idea, but they don’t look modern.

The store is also incredibly jam packed with stuff. The shelves are always full of stock yes, but it doesn’t help when the stock is old and is sitting on dated shelving units lit by 70s style fluorescent lighting fixtures.

The Business

Here’s Toys R Us’s primary operational problem and the problem that ultimately leads to where we are today. Toys R Us always relied on the holiday shopping season to pull its stores into the black. Meaning, Toys R Us always operated its stores in the RED through 80-90% of the year hoping for the holiday season to pull each store up and out and operate in the black for that year. This was the chain’s primary mistake. This operating model had been ongoing since the 80s. This was the way that TRU intentionally chose to operate its stores. This was also entirely their biggest operating failure and it’s the mistake that is now what’s threatening closure and costing TRU its business.

In addition to operating in the red, Toys R Us also didn’t wield its buying power to get the best possible credit terms, the best possible deals and the best possible return arrangements. If a toy doesn’t sell, package it up, send it to another store that can sell it or send it back to the manufacturer for full or partial credit. Let the manufacturer deal with that stock rather than trying to organically clearance out items on the shelves years later. No, get these old toys off of the shelves to make way for new toys. Fill the shelves with toys that can sell and that will pay the bills.

If you can’t pay your bills, you can’t stay in business. Business 101. Yet, Toys R Us management felt that they were above these rules. The management team felt they could continually run their stores in the red without ramifications. Well, fate has now caught up with you, Toys R Us.

Being Acquired by Private Equity Firms

Because of the way Toys R Us chose to operate its stores, it could not support being acquired in this way. This acquisition was entirely shortsighted on the part of the private equity companies involved and they (and us consumers) are the ones who are now paying the ultimate price.

In 2005, Toys R Us was acquired by a set of private equity firms. These firms included KKR & Co., Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust in a $7.5 billion buyout deal. These three companies (and their investors) sank $1.3 billion of their own funds into the purchase, leaving the rest of the purchase price of $6.2 billion to be made up in loans. These loans saddled Toys R Us with an over $6 billion debt burden. A debt that, because of the rather nonsensical business model that the stores had been following since the 80s, could never be recouped. All of this leads to…

Bankruptcy

In late September 2017, Toy R Us filed for bankruptcy protection against its creditors. This means that its creditors can no longer go after Toys R Us for not paying bills. It also meant that the loans left over from that terrible 2005 buyout deal could no longer collect on those loans. Of course, in return for this court issued bankruptcy protection, the company has chosen Chapter 11 to work through a plan to reorganize in a way to get themselves back to profitability and pay their creditors over time before time runs out. For the Toy R Us management, that meant finding a suitor to buy the business… because, of course, they couldn’t be bothered with actually trying to restructure the stores in a way to make them profitable. Oh, no no no.. that’s just too much work.

What? Are you kidding? Are you really expecting some well funded company to swoop into this ailing business holding onto a mountain of debt and offer to buy you? Really? The way that TRU operates is textbook operating procedure for failure. It cannot continue to operate in the way that it does. Even closing half of the stores may not be enough to solve this operating problem. It’s only surprising that it took this long for this toy chain to make it to this point. I expected this day to come a lot sooner.

Toy Collectors and Toys R Us

I full well expected to see Toys R Us fail in the 90s.  However, Star Wars saw to it to keep Toys R Us in business. The Star Wars collectors came out in wild abandon to snap up tons of revamped Star Wars merchandise for not only the previous trilogy (including the Orange and Green carded Power of the Force series), but also snapping up the then new prequel trilogy toys. These toys still remained hot even after 1983’s Return of the Jedi cooled down. It all heated up again when the Prequels began in earnst in 1999 (toys beginning to appear in stores about a year earlier). Toys R Us got a reprieve from their red ledger problems due primarily to Star Wars collectors, Hasbro and a few other unrelated hot toys during the 90s (Tickle Me Elmo). Almost every year, there was some new fad that kept Toys R Us’s year end strategy in check. Though, this strategy would ultimately fail them when, in the last 10 years or so when there just haven’t been those must-have toys or collectible Star Wars toys. Even the Zhu-Zhu pets weren’t enough. Even the latest Star Wars trilogy from Disney has not had the merchandising power that the 90s saw. Though, Disney isn’t crying over what they have sold.

In fact, I’d venture to guess that the 90s collectors have all but stopped collecting and have moved on with their lives… which put a huge crimp in the Toys R Us budget. In fact, during the collector heyday of the 90s, Toys R Us did their very level best to chase away the collectors. Much to their own chagrin, they succeeded in doing so by the mid-2000s. It also doesn’t help that collectors can now buy full cases directly from places like Entertainment Earth, which no longer meant the need to scour the pegs at Toys R Us in the wee hours of the morning. You could order cases directly from the comfort of your own home, then see them delivered to your doorstep.

Amazon and Online Shopping

Because of the power of the Internet, Amazon and eBay, it’s pretty easy to find that hot toy at more reasonable prices. Yes, Toys R Us is still a staple in the current shopping landscape. When it closes, both Amazon and Entertainment Earth will simply pick up where Toy R Us left off without missing a beat. If anything, I’d suggest that Amazon pick up the Toys R Us branding at a fire sale during liquidation and rebrand the Amazon toy section to Toys R Us. Keep the TRU brand alive, but not with all of that bloated store baggage. Then, dump the Babies R Us brand entirely. You can still sell baby things, but branded as Toys R Us.

Toys R Us Closing

As I said, I have a love-hate relationship with Toys R Us. I do enjoy visiting and seeing what’s new, but every time I walk into a store, I’m confronted with the dated shelving and decoration, the continual nagging reminder of just how careless the management is and how much of a wasted opportunity that Toys R Us was when it could have become the biggest most profitable toy chain in the world. Yet, they’ve failed.

If Toys R Us can manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and keep the lights on, I’ll be fine with that. Sadly, I think this is likely where it will all end for Toys R Us.

Gift Cards or Rewards — Use em’ or lose ’em

toys-r-us-gift-cardIf you have any remaining unused gift cards from Toys R Us, be sure to visit a store now and use them immediately. Don’t wait until after Toys R Us begins closing its stores.

Likewise, if you have any rewards points left on your rewards card, log into Toys R Us Rewards, issue certificates and use them up now. Same for Babies R Us Cashback Endless Rewards program. Otherwise, forfeit your chance to convert those points into dollars. Representatives for Toys R Us have said that they will honor gift cards, rewards points and cashback programs for 30 days. The 30 day clock likely began on Wednesday March 14th, when they filed their liquidation paperwork with the court.

I guess in an odd way, I do kind of get that shopping spree after all, and many years later. I just found that I have over 2500 points in my rewards account. That equates to a $100 shopping spree.

For my $100 in rewards points, I got a Nintendo Monopoly set, a Care Bear Grumpy Bear, Two Schliech Geoffrey branded figurines, 5 different Halo Hot Wheels, a Pit Amiibo, a Pain-Yatta Skylander, a Playmation Vision figure and two Geoffrey branded reusable shopping bags. I ended up paying $9 to cover the tax. I also bought a $5 Geoffrey gift card and immediately used it to get dock protector straps for a Nintendo Switch. I wanted the Geoffrey branded gift card as a souvenir. I’d also previously purchased the day before, two Geoffrey 18″ plush and one Geoffrey plush gift card holder, which I’ll put that used Geoffrey gift card in.

Returns and Exchanges During Liquidation

Check any purchased merchandise thoroughly for defects the same day you buy it. If there are any problems, return it the same or next day and exchange it. Don’t wait even a few days to exchange as you may not be able to find the same item. According to Toys R Us representatives, all sales are final. This means, no refunds. However, they may continue to honor exchanges for a period of time. If you’re uncertain of any of this, ask for details at the service desk before you buy.

If you’re thinking of shopping for gift items, you might want to buy elsewhere. Buying a gift for someone could mean the gift recipient can’t return or exchange the item. You don’t want to force a gift onto someone when it’s not something they want only for them to find they cannot return it.

Be that Toys R Us Kid one last time

If you grew up visiting and are as fond of Toys R Us as I am, I’d suggest for you to take a few minutes out of your day and visit your local Toys R Us to reminisce about the good ole days. Once the liquidation sales start, they’re quickly going to look like half-filled shells of a store. Note that the deadline for Toys R Us to find a buyer is early April of 2018, so visit them quick. You have less than a month.

You might even want to pick up a souvenir, such as a plush Geoffrey, to remember what was Toys R Us and what it meant to us as kids. If you want a plush Geoffrey, ask at the Customer Service desk. It seems they keep them there for some reason.

Biggest Failed Kickstarter Projects

Posted in botch, business by commorancy on March 7, 2018

Even though there have been successful projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, projects have also failed for a variety of reasons. Some projects are outright scams solely designed to part you from your money. Let’s explore 11 of these extreme failures.

Don’t Believe The Hype

There are many, many hucksters out there. They can be anywhere in the world from China to Silicon Valley. When you see something that seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you choose to back any projects on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you need to be 100% prepared to lose all money you offer to back a project. Not all projects succeed and this article aptly proves that not everyone in this world is out to make good on their promises. Without further adieu, let’s dig right into the first failure…


11. Holo Cow, Batman!

The product creator H+ purported its Kickstarter Holus 3D display idea to be a unique new 3D holographic display technology. The Holus was a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that touted lots of false claims. The idea is that the images would appear in 3D in real-time as a holograph. Unfortunately, that’s not what the pitch video shows. This Kickstarter campaign amassed CA $297,790 from 496 backers.

Let’s watch this professionally produced pitch:

What went wrong?

Note the still image on the video above. You can see the image passes beyond the edge of the pyramid corner seamlessly. This is not possible. The video uses 3D rendered imagery as an effect, not a physical working prototype which lead to false and misleading information. This is not, in any way, a holographic display. Instead, on the top of this device, there’s a flat panel LCD screen (probably cheap one) that reflects one of 4 different flat images into each side of the glass pyramid. This makes it look like the image is ‘floating in space’, but it is not in any way a 3D holographic experience. This is an entirely scammy device for how it was sold to the backers. People were roped by the hyperbole and backed this project. Suffice it to say, not everything is always as it seems on Kickstarter.

This device is not even an original idea, nor does it offer holographic imagery. Let’s also consider that you can go to Amazon and buy this less than $10 device for your phone which essentially does exactly the same thing as The Holus. There are even models of this device for less than $4 if you really want to go cheap. These display enhancing devices existed long before H+’s idea. This is definitely one that attempted to pull the wool over the eyes of the backers with false claims. There’s now even an arcade game named Crazy Tower that uses this “pseudo-holographic” technology for its display. It’s not 3D either.

Apparently, H+ is still in business trying to hawk this thing. You can visit their web site at hplustech.com. Holo promises seem to be all the rage, let’s scam on.


10. Backpackin’ To The Bank

This next failure, Backzips, was a Kickstarter project that used the take-the-money-and-run approach. This project raked in all told, over $168,000 between Kickstarter and Indiegogo backers. The idea was allegedly to create a backpack that was made of Kevlar, had USB ports, sported an up to 12,000 mAh battery pack and a zipper located in such a way so as to secure your belongings inside from prying hands behind you.

What went wrong?

Suffice it to say, the delivery date(s) came and went, then came and went again over and over. There are 1,495 backers who’ve left over 1012 backer comments on Kickstarter with no answers. November, 16, 2016 was the last time backers heard from the project’s creators. Suffice it to say, that money is not coming back.

After one KS backer later found what appeared to be the same exact bag on sale at Aliexpress, he contacted the seller to get the story. Here’s what the seller had to say:

I am a backpack distributor in China. I suffered the same situation with you. I ordered 100pcs from KS, but I still didn’t receive it. Unfortunately I did pre-sale in domestic market, my customers pushed me from Nov, I don’t want to lose my reputation in China, It is very important for us to do business. so I tried to contact the manufacturer of this bag per the info on KS “same manufacturer with samsonite”, I know that factory, it is famous in China, so I contacted them, I was told that they did have 2000 stocks in warehouse, waiting for their customer to pick them up. They can’t sell to us directly, they have signed contract, but if we need, they can make as they have material stock, so I negotiated with them, placed 500pcs order with them directly. they don’t accept order less than 1000pcs of each color, I am lucky because there is rest material. now I can hold my Chinese customers, but i am waiting my products from KS also.

Apparently, the Backzips Kickstarter project creator even appears to have stiffed the manufacturer. They apparently sent a deposit to create 2000 pieces and then never showed back up to pay for the finished bags, leaving the manufacturer holding the bag (2000 to be exact). Looks like the project creator screwed over everyone all around.

Let’s watch the Pitch video:

Don’t go digging out your wallet for this one, lest you become like the 1,495 other Kickstarter backers who got ripped off backing this project. Just keep your wallet firmly closed and your eyes open as we continue to the next beefy failure.


9. Where’s the Beef?

The Kobe Red Kickstarter campaign led by creators Magnus Fun actually had its plug pulled just before the campaign closed and before the project creator(s) got their money. Kobe Red was project to offer Kobe beef jerky that’s so tasty, “omg im licking my fingers in public” or so the text testimonial goes. The product was supposed to be the world’s first “100% Japanese Beer Fed Beef Jerky.”  Yeah, right. The project amassed over $120,000 in pledges from 3,252 backers.

The project creators never put up any substantial backing material to support the claims that they could, in fact, make this beef jerky, but they apparently did put up excited videos about how great it would all be. Unfortunately, I am unable to find a video for this particular almost-scam. The creators “Magnus Fun” deleted their Kickstarter account and along with it, their videos (which didn’t seem to make it to YouTube).

What went wrong?

It would ironically be another Kickstarter funded project that got the plug pulled on Kobe Red. That other project was Kickstarted. It was a documentary film crew investigating Kickstarter projects and just so happened to investigate this project at the time Kickstarted was being filmed. As a result of the fishy problems surrounding the Kobe Red campaign, these documentary filmmakers brought their information to the attention of Kickstarter staff, who summarily pulled the plug just before that $120,000 ended up in the bank account of Magnus Fun.

In this case, the backers didn’t get screwed and the would-be scammer got nothing…  lucky Kickstarter backers. Sometimes justice is best served with a side of 100% Japanese Beer Fed Beef Jerky. Let’s jerky on over to the next failure.


8. Burn me Once, Burn me Twice

The Laser Razor is a now-suspended Kickstarter campaign that managed to amass over $4 million in backing from over 20,000 backers, but couldn’t come close to delivering a working prototype. While the razor does have a cool look, I’d personally have been skeptical of this project (and the device), particularly after having watched that semi-amateur video. Just look at the quality of this video and tell me if you trust any of the people shown in it?

Let’s Watch:

While the video shows off a prototype of sorts, notice that it has a wire. That wire apparently is a small fiber transmitting the laser and may be enough to ‘cut’ the hair. Unfortunately, that fiber is incredibly fragile. The razor also can’t be used against the skin. It must precariously balance above the skin. If you go too fast or try to cut too many, the fiber breaks. If they had managed to actually make this thing work in a reliable way, it would ultimately be similar to a laser hair removal device. However, it wouldn’t be bright enough or go deep enough to affect the follicle in the pore. Instead, it would just lase the hair shaft from the surface of the skin. Unfortunately, this laser would likely be strong enough to burn the skin. Additionally, such a laser would likely be just dangerous enough to need eye protection while using it. Not something you’d really want to don every morning just after getting out of bed.

As a result of the lack of producing a functional and necessary Laser Razor prototype to satisify Kickstarter rules, the Kickstarter staff suspended the project before the creators received any money. Yet again, the backers were lucky. This is a bit unusual considering that the project had over 20,000 backers with over $4 million in funding. With $4 million on the table, you’d think that the creators should have been able to hire an engineer capable of pulling off a truly functional prototype. Nope.

After the project was suspended by Kickstarter, Skarp moved this campaign over to Indiegogo for a second campaign where it raised over $500,000 from over 2,700 backers (a far cry from what they raised on Kickstarter), but still not a slouchy number.

What went wrong?

In 2016, CNET visited Skarp to see if the prototype that Skarp had created actually worked. According to CNET, while it did cut individual hairs, it also broke during the demonstration. So, there’s that. Skarp did receive its funds from Indiegogo, but apparently Skarp is not willing to refund anyone. They have also, so far, not delivered anything functional.

Let’s watch this CNET report:

Skarp was apparently to deliver its first product in 2016, it is now 2018 and Skarp still hasn’t delivered anything. Skarp could have engineered a better standard razor in all that time while still working on their flagship product. At least release something. Skarp’s web site is still active at www.skarptechnologies.com, so someone’s still paying the bills on that. I guess it’s all of those Indiegogo suckers.. er… backers. Let’s try not to get razor burned again, m’kay?


7. Kanoa Borrow A Light?

When it comes to earbuds, Apple pretty much has it sewn up for the wireless category. There are few headphones that beat the functionality and quality of the Airpods (even as stupid as they look while wearing them). The Bluetooth connection to the phone or whatever, for the most part, is rock solid. There is the occasional drop out, but nothing too bad. They charge fast and they usually connect pretty fast.

However, Kanoa tried to create a set of wireless earbuds to compete with Apple’s Airpods via an Indiegogo campaign. They thought they could do better. Unfortunately, the Indiegogo campaign page is not available due to ‘pending review’, so I will have to write out the details about what it is rather than showing you the pitch video. The Earbuds touted a charging case, a small design, supposedly rock stable connectivity and app-controllable noise cancelling.

To prove their worth, Kanoa sent a pair of Truly Wireless Earbuds to a YouTuber to give an honest (ahem) review about them. When the YouTuber tried to use them, they failed in pretty much every conceivable way.

Here’s a 30 minute video Cody Crouch from iTwe4kz channel telling his story of these headphones:

TL;DW — I’ll cut to the chase for you, you can come back and watch the whole thing later.

What went wrong?

Cody found that pretty much every feature that he tried to use had some kind of problem. The headphones paired to the phone fine. But, the earbuds wouldn’t pair to the app so he couldn’t control the noise cancelling feature. After several hours of screwing with them and a call to the company, he got it working. Then, when he tried to use the noise canceling feature, it failed with constant loud feedback when he turned the outside noise level up to above 60%. After that, the earbuds wouldn’t charge in the charging case properly and needed to be reset, but there was a complication because the charging case was itself charging. He had to unplug the charging case to charge the earbuds. When he went outside to film part of the review, he tried to use them with the phone in his back pocket while on a skateboard. The earbuds wouldn’t work when he turned his head. They would disconnect. While he was on the phone with Kanoa working out these problems, the earbuds produced static.

He ultimately had conversations with the company about all of these problems and Kanoa eventually conceded to these problems by attempting to pay him $500 to create a good review of these earbuds. That’s when Cody gets really triggered. He then posts the above video stating what garbage the headphones really are.

After his video posted, the company shutdown and closed stating:

Capital funding is essential for ramping up production. Unlike on typical crowdfunding platforms we allowed backers to ask for refunds at any time. This policy kept us honest, but also added vulnerability once we had made major financial commitments. Setbacks and some bad publicity, like reviews of non-shippable beta units, stirred our audience. Most significantly and to our unpleasant surprise, our investors recently backed out of our funding round. We do not blame them, but this was a pivotal setback since capital was essential for ramping up production …Unfortunately, without that investment, we do not have enough capital to stay operational while we find a solution.

This carefully crafted statement basically sums it all up. Cody’s YouTube review caused, at least according to this statement, their financial backers to pull any further support and they had to close their doors. In 2018, their web site is down.

The moral here is not to request YouTube folks review your product, particularly if your product is not ready for general consumption. Just put the item onto the market and let the chips fall where they may. In this case, it’s probably best that Kanoa folded based on how junky and janky these earbuds were. Kanoa move to the next one now?


6. Fly Me to the Moon

Another failed Kickstarter project named Zano by its creator Torquing wanted to build a tiny drone that claims to be an autonomous, intelligent, swarming, nano drone. After all, drones have been around for quite a while, even super tiny ones. The drone would also contain lots of bells and whistles including a camera. Basically, instead of a bunch of cumbersome controls, the drone would follow your phone around taking pictures for about 15 minutes at a time. So, what’s wrong with this drone? That’s what the Kickstarter team wanted to find out after the drones sucked so badly they couldn’t fly properly. This Kickstarter project amassed $3.4 million in pledges from more than 12,000 backers.

Let’s watch their original pitch:

What went wrong?

In addition to various supplier problems, once Zano began shipping in Septemer of 2016, the company decided to ship the drones to pre-order customers rather than backers, which angered many. The few drones that did end up in the wild angered their owners for entirely different reasons. They didn’t work well. Sometimes the units would take off and land immediately. When they did stay in the air, they would randomly veer off course crashing into something. The drones also appeared to have no obstacle avoidance system as promised. Basically, all of the diatribe promised in the video never became reality. It was a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

According to Gizmodo, by November 2016 and as a result of all of the drone problems, Torquing declared bankruptcy. Along with that bankruptcy, so dried up the $3.4 million from all of the pledges. So ends the saga of the Zano and all of the money they raked in. Let’s drone on.


5. Deal Me Out

How hard is it to create a deck of cards? In 2012, Altius Management put up a Kickstarter campaign to produce ‘horrific’ playing cards on Bicycle playing card paper. This project amassed just over $25,000 from 810 backers. What happened? Altius Management couldn’t deliver on decks of simple playing cards. By 2015, this project was part of a lawsuit which a judge ordered the company to repay a portion of the money it had collected from Kickstarter.

Let’s watch their pitch video:

What went wrong?

Not sure entirely, but Ed Nash of Altius Management failed to deliver on the decks of cards for over 3 years. By 2015, a court had issued a judgement against Mr. Nash to repay the damages. Though, at the same time, Mr. Nash began making good on the orders and backers began receiving their decks. It was too little, too late for Mr. Nash. The court judgement still stood regardless of the decks being delivered.

Here’s one case where the backers were able to get at least something for the lack of delivery. Nope, no Aces up my sleeve, but there might be a Joker in this next failure.


4. Tripping the Light Fantastic

Here’s another Kickstarter campaign that started with grand plans. This time the creators Central Standard Timing promised to produce the thinnest watch in the world. It is called the CST-01. This watch is … well, let’s watch the video:

I know this one looks cool, but don’t pull your wallet out lest you become another of this project’s victims. This Kickstarter campaign amassed over $1 million dollars from over 7,600 backers.

What went wrong?

Apparently, the manufacturing process for this watch was a whole lot more complicated than anticipated. In 2015 after a whole lot of silence from the creators, the watch’s team posted a comment stating that the watch would be delayed due to losing their manufacturer. Not long after that notification, the company filed for bankruptcy.

$1 million dollars up in smoke. Some reporters claim it wasn’t malice, but that the company was in over its head. I don’t buy that. These companies know what it’s going to take to manufacture the product before they ever get to Kickstarter. If they don’t, they shouldn’t even be there. This should be question #1 from Kickstarter staff before ever listing a project of this nature. Time marches on.


3. Oh yeah? Oh, No!

Let’s now examine what might be considered one of the biggest crowdfunding successes that also became one of the biggest failures: Ouya. Though, the biggest failure award would actually go to #1 on this list. This console, conceived by Julie Uhrman, was touted to be the next best thing since sliced bread. Yet, what it turned out to be is a sluggish disaster worse than a generic $40 Android tablet. The Ouya began its dream as a Kickstarter campaign and ended as one of the biggest crapfests to come out of a Kickstarter.

Let’s watch their pitch video (note the mix of professional and amateur content):

The Ouya Kickstarter campaign amassed over $8.6 million dollars from 63,416 backers. That’s a lotta coin to rake in, but it’s not the largest Kickstarter funded project. Stay tuned, that’s yet to come.

What went wrong?

The Ouya is cheaply designed and built both inside and out. According to some buyers, the controller buttons would stick. Some buyers had their controller wear out within a week’s worth of use. The innards consisted of an Android based computer. But, it was a computer with far less power than your average Android smart phone or tablet. It could barely play games, according to many. Indie games were present on the console, but only when the Ouya had enough power to sufficiently play them. Most times, it didn’t.

The primary problem with any new console is adoption. Without getting developers to adopt the platform and begin writing or porting games over, it’s all done and your platform is dead. The Ouya never got the developer momentum going. It just floundered for too long. Worse, at a time when Ouya was still trying to fulfill orders to the backers, they decided to sell the console in stores. This is when the Ouya appeared in the likes of Amazon and Best Buy, and later Target. This made many backers angry who had yet to receive their console. Ouya ended up being acquired by Razer in 2015. As the TechCrunch article states:

Notably, Razer is not acquiring the hardware part of Ouya’s business, specifically the microconsole and controller …

Yes, best dump all of that Kickstarter baggage as quickly as possible. So, what happened to Julie Uhrman? After the acquisition, she ended up writing off the Ouya with her apropos closing tweet:

If you really want a high powered Android gaming console, you should check out the NVIDIA Shield TV on Amazon. I can personally vouch for the quality of NVIDIA’s consoles and controllers. These things are rugged, durable and the gaming system is a powerhouse (at least as far as Android gaming is concerned). Ouya on over to this next failure.


2. Dump that Ice, Party’s Over

Even though this Kickstarter product is still shipping on Amazon, this next one is considered by many to be a very big failure. This is the Cooler Master by Ryan Grepper. To some, this one is also considered as the second biggest failure in the history of Kickstarter. Some backers got what they were promised, but many are still waiting (even in 2018) for their cooler to arrive. It’s also not like this cooler is inexpensive at $450. As many as 20,000 backers had been waiting for two years for their product to arrive as recently as June of 2017 (more on this below). In fact, this was Ryan’s second attempt to create a Kickstarter campaign for the Coolest Cooler. The first campaign was considered a spectacular failure.

Grepper writes of his first Kickstarter attempt via this 2014 Mashable article:

that campaign was riddled with mistakes: the target funding goal was relatively high ($125,000), the design for the product wasn’t far enough along and the campaign launched over the winter when the last thing people were thinking about were coolers. Sure enough, the campaign fell more than $20,000 short of its goal.

After the failure of his first Coolest Cooler Kickstarter project, Grepper tried again seven months later. Grepper’s second Kickstarter project amassed a whopping $13,285,226 in pledges among 62,642 backers. This is one of the biggest Kickstarter fundraising campaigns ever. Though, not the biggest. That accomplishment (and subsequent failure) is coming up next. Before that…

Let’s watch the Coolest Cooler backer pitch:

What went wrong?

Extremely slow delivery of the product. Even as late as the middle of 2017, there were as many as 20,000 backers still waiting for their coolers to arrive. These 20,000 also found out, after a Department of Justice investigation, that they may have 3 more years to wait before it arrives. That’s over 6 years waiting for a product. That means some coolers may not arrive until 2020 for many backers of this project. This would burn me up. By then, as with many other of these Kickstarter project owners, Ryan’s company could be bankrupt. We’ll have to wait and see on this one. Nothing cool about this.

These two Amazon answers sum up all that went wrong with this product:

‘Nuff said.


1. I’ve Got Something In My Shoe

“What is the biggest failure in the history of Kickstarter”, you ask? Pebble. This e-paper based watch was touted by Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky to be such a great wearable, after all, just watch the positive upbeat videos below! In fact, the company thought it was so great that it warranted three Kickstarter campaigns. Yes, you read that right, three! Though, the third campaign was, in fact, a last ditch effort to save the Pebble company. It didn’t work.

The campaigns included the original Pebble, the Pebble Time and the Pebble 2 / Pebble Time 2 / Pebble Core. Between these three campaigns alone, the Pebble company received $10,266,845 for the Pebble campaign (68,929 backers), $20,338,986 for the Pebble Time campaign (78,471 backers) and $12,779,843 for the Pebble 2 campaign (66,673 backers) which totals an astonishing USD $43,385,674 from 214,073 backers! That’s an average of $202.67 per backer. So, what happened?

Let’s watch the pitches (fullscreen available):

Pebble Pebble Time
Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core

What went wrong?

The wearables market crashed and took Pebble with it. This Wired article tells all that you need to know about Pebble’s financial mess and the story behind the third, and ultimately failed, Kickstarter Pebble 2 campaign. Suffice it to say, Pebble’s sales took a nosedive in 2016 and Eric Migicovsky couldn’t find any further funding… so the company turned back to Kickstarter. In fact, of the Pebble 2 / Pebble Core Kickstarter campaign, Wired states:

The Core is destined be become a ghost product, a brilliant prototype that will never be delivered to the 24,000 people who ordered it on Kickstarter. (They will get refunds through the Kickstarter system.)

As of December 2016, Pebble closed its doors and obviously stopped making its wearables. According to TechCrunch, FitBit acquired what was left of Pebble for an estimated $40 million, apparently barely enough to pay off Pebble’s debts. However, in 2017, it was revealed by TechCrunch that Fitbit paid $23 million to acquire Pebble. That’s probably just barely the amount needed to cover Pebble’s debts. This, after Pebble had amassed nearly $44 million in Kickstarter campaigns. I’m quite sure the founders felt bad all the way to the bank. And with this failure, I’m so glad this pebble is finally out of my shoe.


Final Thoughts – Crowdfunding as a Platform

What do all of these failures say about crowdfunded projects? Think, people, think. If the project seems to good to be true, it is. Don’t invest money into crowdfunded projects unless you are entirely prepared to lose every last cent. And yes, it is investing. Kickstarter is not a store, even though it looks like one. Even when you do manage to get a product that works, you can see how quickly these companies that seemed successful can fail. Then what are you left with? In Pebble’s case, you’re left with an unsupported device. In Ouya’s case, a crappy console. Invest your money in companies that have a solid reputation for building high quality products and that have a history of remaining in business.

Investing in these startup crowdfunded companies is a recipe for failure. Kickstarter is a great platform to raise $50k to write a book, create a film, or even perhaps write an indie video game. But, don’t go into Kickstarter with projects that are at the $500,000 to $5 million dollar level. These levels of funding, while immense, have a high probability for failure. It seems that many project creators have little to no knowledge of either how to run a business or how to manage finances, let alone create a product. Some of them may even be hucksters simply out to part you from your money without providing anything. Stay away from these high dollar funded projects and put your money into established businesses with established products. You’ll thank me later for this advice.

Note, this is not an exhaustive list of all of the failures between Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Oh, no no no. There are have been a whole lot more than this list. It seems that there have been so many, I’d have to create a blog series to document these failures (and to document them as they continue to fail… and they will).

If you’re interested in such an ongoing series, please let me know by leaving a comment below AND by following this blog by clicking the blue Follow button in the upper right of this page. If you’ve been scammed by a crowdfunded project, please leave a comment and I’ll consider featuring it in a future article.

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What is an inclusion rider?

Posted in california, Employment, film by commorancy on March 5, 2018

As Francis McDormond spoke while accepting her Oscar, she left the audience with two final words, “inclusion rider”. What is it? Let’s explore.

Hollywood Contracts

Being a Hollywood actor, director, writer, cinematographer, producer or other cast or crew requires signing a contract with the production for employment. Contracts, as we all know, are legal agreements that you legally agree do whatever is stipulated within the contract. If you’re an actor, you’ll act. If you’re a producer, you’ll produce…. and so on.

However, there are also other items that can be added to contracts to make them sweeter, such as getting a percentage of the back end. The back end could include residuals from such things as box office sales, merchandising, video sales, rentals, etc etc. These can make whatever that person got paid even sweeter. If the production does well, that percentage of the back end could mean an even bigger paycheck. It’s always reasonable to try and negotiate percentages in productions, and while many lead actors and actresses try, getting that deal isn’t always possible. Negotiation of a back end deal is a form of rider. However, this is not the type of rider of which Francis McDormond speaks.

Affirmative Action

Before Affirmative Action began, minorities didn’t get their fair share of consideration during the hiring processes in many companies. Affirmative Action was created to ensure that employers remain equal opportunity for anyone who chooses to apply for a position. This means that an employer cannot turn away anyone for the position solely based on race, creed, color or national origin (among others). The idea is that everyone must be considered for the position equally so long as they have the necessary skills and qualifications. What does this have to do with an ‘inclusion rider’? Everything..

Inclusion Rider

Hollywood is facing its biggest upheaval in many, many years. With the fall of Harvey Weinstein (and many others), Hollywood faces much scrutiny over unfair practices in productions against not only minorities, but also against women. In particular, McDormand refers to the fact that women have been unfairly treated in Hollywood for far too long. Not only in the sex object perspective, but also from a pay perspective. Francis McDormand’s comment conveys a ton of information in those two words.

An inclusion rider is a legal addition to a contract, specifically, a movie production contract, to ensure that women are fairly compensated and properly represented within the production. However, there’s a whole lot more veiled in these two words. In particular, McDormand’s comment was intended toward the Hollywood A-Listers who command not only a high salary, but a lot of negotiating power when it comes to their employment contracts.

Basically, an inclusion rider means hiring folks into the production in all capacities that represent all ages, creeds, colors, races, lifestyles, genders and so on. Unfortunately this also means sometimes shoehorning cast members into a production who don’t fit the story or setting of the film. For example, the most recent Fantastic Four is a very good example of the use of an ‘inclusion rider’ on the cast. This production hired a black actor for Johnny Storm. This is so far out of place from the original FF comics, it actually made no sense. Basically, that film version took extreme liberties from the the source material of Fantastic Four and rewrote that Susan Storm was adopted into a black family! This was never the case in the comics. In the comics, Susan and Johnny Storm were actual siblings, not adopted siblings and not from a mixed race family. Unfortunately, the production shoehorned in this black actor into this role without thinking through if it made any sense to the source comic material. This is when an ‘inclusion rider’ goes way too far and gets in the way of the casting for the production. To be fair, that casting mistake (and it was a relatively big one) was actually one of the lesser problems with that film version of Fantastic Four. Though, it didn’t help either.

The second example is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams intentionally requested a diverse set of ethnicities to be represented in the Star Wars reboot. However, because these stories didn’t exist, casting these characters wasn’t as big of a problem like The Fantastic Four. However, by The Last Jedi, the production had shoehorned the newest character, Rose, played by the Asian female actress, Kelly Marie Tran. Apparently, the production thought they didn’t yet have enough ethnicities represented and threw in yet another another character at a time when the production already had too many characters in the cast. The Rose character just doesn’t work. Sure, they added an Asian female actress, but that was too little, too late for the China audience. China had already written off the latest Star Wars as stupid way before Rose joined the cast. The casting of Rose did not in any way help sway China to accept these newest Star Wars films.

Is an inclusion rider good or bad or even necessary?

I’ll leave that for you to decide. However, from my perspective, the source story material should always rule the roost. An inclusion rider should never attempt to shoehorn diversity in actors or actresses simply because it’s politically correct. If you’re a producer who’s adapting an existing novel to the big screen that contains primarily white male characters as the leads among similar background characters, you shouldn’t recast them using to black, Asian, Latino or female roles just because of an inclusion rider. You should also not include extras who are demographically out of place or who don’t make sense for the source story. The source material should always be upheld for casting as the source story dictates. If you can’t cast a film the way the book is written, you should find another book to translate to film that fits your casting ideals.

Rewriting the source material’s story just to fulfill an inclusion rider is not only heavy handed, it’s insanely stupid, insipid and likely to cause the production to flop. The characters in a book are written to be a certain way and that’s why the story works. If you’re adapting that book to film, you should make sure that you’re being faithful to the source material which doesn’t include changing genders or the ethnicity of any character in a book just to fulfill an inclusion rider. Stick with the source material or expect your movie to fail at the box office.

See: Fantastic Four (2015) and Ghostbusters (2016) to understand just how badly ‘inclusion riders’ can affect your final product.

If you’re writing an original story for film, then by all means write the story so that the characters can be cast in the way that makes the most sense for your production’s inclusion riders. But, don’t bastardize an existing book or adaptation just to fill the cast with random genders and ethnicities that don’t make logical sense for the story or the setting.

As for whether an inclusion rider is even necessary is entirely up to the actor to negotiate. If you feel it’s important for your participation in the film, then yes. But, what’s really more important is you doing your best work possible with the cast who’s hired. Putting unnecessary demands on the producers might, in the long run, hurt your career longevity. That decision, however, is entirely up to you.

Best Production Possible

As a producer, don’t tie your production’s hands unnecessarily by adding stipulations that limit the potential quality of your project. You want your project to succeed, right? Then, keep all of your options open. Adding an inclusion rider that limits your hiring practice may, in fact, limit your production’s chances of succeeding. Don’t limit your production solely to hire under-represented minority groups. Do it because it makes sense for the film’s story and to make that story’s setting more authentic, not because you have an inclusion rider present.

Hiring Values

As for your behind-the-scenes production crew, by all means, hire as diverse as you possibly can. The more diverse the better. As with any business, and don’t kid yourself that a film production isn’t a business, diversity in hiring applies just as much the crew as any other employee in any other business. Diversity in hiring should be included in any capacity that your film needs. Of course, these folks are all behind the camera. However, hire smart, not diverse. This means that you don’t hire just because you want diversity. Hire because the person has the right skills for the job… which means, don’t turn away well qualified Caucasian candidates just because you want to hire diverse. Hire each one of your positions because the candidate offers the skills you need to get the job done, not because of an inclusion rider. Hire for skills, not diversity.

For the cast members in front of the camera, always hire the cast that makes the most sense for the story and produces the most authentic results. Don’t hire diversely just to fill a quota because you feel that an ethnic, lifestyle or gender group is underrepresented on film. That’s the wrong reason to hire a cast. Hire a cast that makes proper sense to tell the story. If that means diversity, great. If it means all white females or all black males, then that’s what the story needs. The story should dictate the cast, not an inclusion rider.

Original Hollywood Sign photo by raindog808 via Flickr using CC 2.0 license

What killed the LaserDisc format?

Posted in collectibles, entertainment, movies, technologies by commorancy on March 1, 2018

Laserdisc-logoThere have been a number of tech documentarian YouTubers who’ve recently posted videos regarding LaserDisc and why it never became popular and what killed it. Some have theorized that VHS had nothing to do with the failure of the LaserDisc format. I contend that LaserDisc didn’t exactly fail, but also didn’t gain much traction.

LaserDisc did have a good run between 1978 and 2002. However, it also wasn’t a resounding success for a number of reasons. While the LaserDisc format sold better in Japan than in the US, it still didn’t get that much traction even in Japan. Though, yes, VHS recorders (among other competitive technologies at the time) did play a big part in LaserDisc’s lackluster consumer acceptance. Let’s explore.

History

While I won’t go into the entire history of the LaserDisc player, let me give a quick synopsis of its history. Let’s start by what it is. LaserDisc (originally named DiscoVision in 1978) began its life as a 12″ optical disc containing analog video and analog audio mca_discovision(smaller sizes would become available later) with discs labeled as MCA DiscoVision. In 1980, Pioneer bought the rights to the LaserDisc technology and dropped the DiscoVision branding in lieu of the LaserDisc and LaserVision brands. It also wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that digital audio and digital video combined would appear on this format. A LaserDisc movie is typically dual sided and would be flipped to watch the second half of a film. They can also be produced single sided. Like VHS had SP and LP speeds that offered less or more recording time, LaserDisc had something similar in terms of content length, but offered no consumer recording capability.

There were two formats of LaserDiscs:

The first format is CAV. CAV stands for constant angular velocity. In short, CAV was a format where the rotational speed remained the same from beginning to end. The benefit for CAV was that it offered solid freeze frames throughout the program. Unlike VHS where freeze frames might be distorted, jump or be noisy, CAV discs offered perfect freeze frames.

It also offered a fast scrubbing speed and slowed play. Later LD players even offered a jog shuttle on the remote to reverse or forward the playback a few frames at a time to as fast as you could spin the wheel. CAV also meant that each frame of video was one rotation of the disc. Keep in mind that NTSC video is interlaced and, therefore, half of the disc ring was one half of the frame and the other half of the disc ring was the other half of the frame. It took a full rotation to create a full NTSC frame.

The NTSC format CAV disc only offered up to 30 minutes per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie would consume 3 sides or two discs. This was the first format of disc introduced during the DiscoVision days. Early content was all CAV.

The second format is CLV. CLV stands for constant linear velocity. This format reduces the rotational speed as the disc reaches the outer edge. You can even hear the motor slow as the movie progresses playback if you’re close enough to the player. I should point out that LaserDiscs read from the center of the media to the outer edge.

LaserDisc players also read from the bottom side of the disc when put into the player. It’s just the opposite of a vinyl LP that reads from the outside in and from the top. This means that the label on the center of the disc refers to the opposite side of the media. The CLV format offers no freeze frame feature. Because the rotational speed drops as the laser moves across the disc, eventually multiple video frames would be contained in a single rotation. Any attempt to freeze frame the picture would show multiple frames of motion. Not very pretty. The freeze frame feature is disabled on CLV formatted discs.

The NTSC formatted CLV disc offers up to 60 minutes of video per side and a little more for PAL. A 90 minute movie comfortably fits on one disc. After CLV was discovered to hold more content than a CAV LaserDisc, this format is how the majority of movies were sold once the DiscoVision brand disappeared. Note that many movies used CLV on side one and CAV on side two when less than 30 minutes.

The intent for LaserDisc was to sell inexpensive films forLaserVision_logo home consumption. It all started with the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 DiscoVision player which went on sale December 15th, 1978. This player released on this day along with several day one release movies on LaserDisc. The format, at the time, was then called DiscoVision. Because 1978 was basically the height of the disco music era, it made sense why it ended up called DiscoVision. Obviously, this naming couldn’t last when the disco music era closed.

Early Player Reliability

The first players used a visible red laser consisting of a helium-neon laser. The light output looks similar to a red laser pointer. These LD players had pop up lids. This meant you could pop the lid open while the disc was playing, lift the disc and see the red laser in action. The problem with these first players was with the helium-neon laser unit. In short, they became incredibly hot making the unit unreliable. I personally owned one of these open lid style players from Philips and can assert from personal experience that these players were lemons. If they lasted 6 months worth of use, you could count yourself lucky. At the time, when your player was broken, you had to take your player to an authorized service center to get it repaired.

These repair centers were factory authorized, but not run by Philips. Repairs could take weeks requiring constant phone calls to the repair center to get status. The repair centers always seemed overwhelmed with repairs. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of taking the unit in to be repaired once every 6 months, paying for each repair after the warranty ran out. This would have been about 1982 or so. I quickly replaced this player for a new one. I’d already invested in too many LaserDiscs to lose all of the discs that I had.

In 1983-1984 or thereabouts, the optical audio Compact Disc was introduced. These players offered solid-state non-visible lasers to read the CD optical media. As a result of the technology used to read the CD, LaserDisc players heavily benefited from this technology advance. Pioneer, the leading LaserDisc player brand at the time, jumped immediately on board with replacing the red visible laser with very similar solid state lasers being used in CD players.

Once the new laser eye was introduced, reliability increased dramatically. Players became more compact, ran cooler and became more full featured. Instead of being able to play only LaserDiscs, they could now also play CDs of all sizes. This helped push LaserDisc players into the home at a time when LaserDisc needed that kick in the pants. Though, adoption was still very slow.

1984

The year 1984 would be the year of VHS. This is the year when video rental stores would become commonplace. During this time, I helped start up a video rental department for a brand new record store. It was a time when record stores were expanding into video rentals. I don’t know how many VHS tapes I inventoried for the new store. One thing was certain. We did not rent anything other than VHS tapes. No Betamax, no LaserDisc and no CED rentals. We didn’t even stock LaserDiscs or CEDs for sale in this store location. In fact, the chain of record stores where I worked would eventually become Blockbuster and would adopt the same logo color scheme as the record store chain used. But, that wouldn’t be for a few more years.

VHS was on the verge of and would soon become the defacto format for movie rentals. Why not LaserDisc? Not enough saturation in combination with LaserDisc having the same problem that pretty much all optical media has. It’s easily scratched. Because the LaserDisc surface is handled directly by hands (it has no caddy), this means that the wear and tear on a LaserDisc meant eventually replacing the disc by the rental store. This compared to VHS tape that, so long as the tape remained intact, it could be rented over and over even if there was the occasional drop out from being played too much.

LaserDisc fared far worse on this front. Because there was no easy way to remove the scratches from a disc, once a disc was scratched it meant replacement. Even if the disc was minimally scratched, it could still be unplayable in some players, particularly the red visible laser kind. These older models were not at all tolerant of scratches.

Media Costs

While VHS tape movies cost $40 or $50 or even upwards to $70, LaserDisc movies cost $25 to $30 on average. The cost savings to buy a movie on LaserDisc was fairly substantial. However, you had to get past the sticker shock of the $800-900 you’re required to invest into Pioneer to get a CLD-900 player. This at the time when VHS recorders were $600 or thereabouts. However, VHS recorder prices would continue to drop to about $250 by 1987 (just 3 years later).

LaserDisc player prices never dropped much and always hovered around the $600-$800 price when new. They were expensive. Pioneer was particularly proud of their LaserDisc players and always charged a premium. You could find used players for lower prices, though. Because Pioneer was (ahem) the pioneer in LD equipment at that time, buying into Magnavox or other LD equipment brands meant problems down the road. If you wanted a mostly trouble free LD experience, you bought Pioneer.

Competitors

I would be remiss at not mentioning the CED disc format that showed up on the scene heavily around 1984, even though it was introduced in 1981. CED stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. It was a then alternative format video media disc conceived in the 1960s by RCA. Unfortunately, the CED project remain stalled for 17 years in development hell at RCA.

CED uses a stylus like an LP and the disc is made of vinyl also like an LP, except you can’t handle it with your hands. This media type is housed in a caddy. To play these discs, you had to purchase a CED player and buy CED media. To play the disc, you would insert the disc caddy into the slot on the front of the unit and then pull it back out. The machine grabbed the disk out of the caddy on insertion. As soon as the caddy is removed, the disc is begins to play. The door to the caddy slot locks when the disc was in motion. Once the mechanism stops moving, the door unlocks and you can insert the caddy, then remove the disc.

Because the CED is read by a stylus, it had its own fair share of problems, not the least of which was skipping and low video quality. LaserDisc was the consumer product leader in image quality all throughout the 80s and 90s until DVD arrived. However, that didn’t stop CED from taking a bite out of the LaserDisc videodisc market. The CED format only served to dilute the idea of the videodisc and confuse consumers on which format to buy. This was, in fact, the worst of all situations for LaserDisc at a time when VHS rentals were appearing at practically any store that could devote space to set up a rental section. Even grocery stores were jumping on board to get a piece of the VHS rental action.

VHS versus LaserDisc rentals

As a result of VHS rentals, which could be found practically everywhere by 1986, renting LaserDiscs (or even CEDs) was always a challenge. Not only was it difficult to find stores to rent a LaserDisc, when you did find them, the selection was less than stellar. In fact, because VHS rentals became so huge during this time, LaserDisc pressings couldn’t compete and started falling behind the VHS releases. VHS became the format released first, then LaserDiscs would appear a short time later. This meant that if you wanted to rent the latest movie, you pretty much had to own a VHS player. If you wanted to watch the movie in higher quality, you had to wait for the LaserDisc version. Even then, you’d have to buy it rather than renting. Renting of LaserDiscs was not only rare to find, but eventually disappeared altogether leaving purchasing a LaserDisc the only option, or you rented a VHS tape.

If you weren’t into rentals and wanted to own a film, then LaserDisc was the overall better way to go. Not only were the discs less expensive, the video and audio would remain the highest home consumer quality until S-VHS arrived. Unfortunately, S-VHS had its own problems with adoption even worse than LaserDisc and this format would fail to be adopted by the general home consumer market. LaserDisc continued to dominate the videophile market for its better picture and eventually digital sound until 1997 when the DVD arrived.

Time Was Not Kind

As time progressed into the late 80s, it would become more difficult to find not only LaserDisc players to buy, but also LaserDiscs. Stores that once carried the discs would begin to clearance them out and no longer carry them. Some electronics stores just outright closed and those outlets to buy players were lost. By the 90s, the only reasonable place to purchase LaserDiscs was via mail order.

There were simply no local electronics stores in my area that carried movie discs any longer. Perhaps you could find them in NYC, but not in Houston. Because they were 12″ in size, this meant a lot of real estate was needed to store and display LaserDiscs. Other than record stores, few stores would want to continue to invest store real estate into this lackluster format, especially when VHS is booming. In a lot of ways, LaserDisc packaging looked like LP records, only with movie posters on the front. This packaging was not likely helpful to the LaserDisc. Because they were packaged almost identically to an LP, including being shrink wrapped (and using white inner sleeves), these discs could easily be confused with LP records when walking by a display of them.

Marketing was a major problem for LaserVision. While there was a kind of consortium of hardware producers that included Pioneer, Philips and Magnavox, there was no real marketing strategy to sell the LaserDisc format to the consumer. Because of this, LaserDisc fell into the niche market of videophiles. Basically, it was a small word of mouth community. This was a time before the Internet. Videophiles were some of the first folks to have a small home theater and they demanded the best video and audio experience, and were willing to shell out cash for it. Unfortunately, this market was quite a small segment. Few people were willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops just to buy an LD player, then mail order a bunch of discs. Yet, the videophiles kept buying just enough to keep this market alive.

Laser Rot

In addition to the hassles of bad marketing, the discs ended up with a bad reputation for a severe manufacturing defect. Even some commercially pressed CDs ended up succumbing to this same fate. The problem is known as laser rot. Laser rot is when the various layers that make up a LaserDisc were sealed improperly or used non-archival adhesives during manufacture. These layers later oxidize causing pitting on the sandwiched metal surface. This oxidation pitting causes the original content pits to be lost over time ending up with snow both in audio and in video. The audio usually goes first, then the video.

Laser rot even appeared early on the earliest pressed DiscoVision media, we just wouldn’t find out until much later. This indicated that the faulty manufacturing process began when the format was born. Laser rot caused a lot of fans of the format a lot of grief when the format least needed such a pothole. This problem should have been addressed rapidly once found, but there were many discs that continued to be improperly manufactured even into the 90s after the problem was found. The defective manufacturing process was something the LaserVision consortium failed to address, which tarnished (ahem) the reputation of the LaserVision brand.

For the videophiles who had invested heavily in this format, nothing was worse than playing a disc that you know worked fine a few months ago only to find it now unplayable. It was not only disheartening, but it gave fans of the format pause to consider any future purchases.

Losing Steam

Not only were the average consumers turned off by the high prices of the players, consumers also didn’t see the benefit of owning a LaserDisc player because of its lack of recording capabilities and its lack of readily available rentals. Some videophiles and LaserDisc format advocates lost interest when they attempted to play a 3 year old disc only to find that it was unplayable. At this point, only true die-hards stayed with LaserDisc format even among the mounting disc problems and lack of marketing push.

The manufacturers never stepped up to offer replacement discs for laser rot, which they should have. The LaserVision consortium did nothing to entice new consumers into the format nor did they attempt to fix the manufacturing defect leading to laser rot. The only thing the manufacturers did is continue to churn out upgraded LaserDisc player models by adding features that didn’t help further the LaserDisc format directly. Instead, they chose to add compatibility for media like CDV or 3″ CD formats or CD text, features that did nothing to further LaserDisc, but were only added to entice audiophiles into adding a LaserDisc player into their component audio system. This ploy didn’t work. Why? Because audiophiles were more interested in music selection over compatibility with video formats. What sold were the carousel CD players that would eventually hold up to 400 CDs. Though, the 5 CD changers were also wildly popular at the time.

Instead of investing the time and effort into making LaserDisc a better format, the manufacturers spent time adding unnecessary features to their players (and charging more money for them). Granted, the one feature that was added that was desperately needed was digital audio soundtracks. These would be the precursor to DVD. However, while they did add digital audio to LaserDisc by the early 90s, the video was firmly still analog. However, even digital audio on the LaserDisc didn’t kick sales up in any substantial way. This was primarily because 5.1 and 7.1 sound systems were still a ways off from becoming mainstream.

The 90s and 00s

While LaserDisc did continue through most of the 90s as the format that still produced the best NTSC picture quality and digital sound for some films, that wouldn’t last once the all digital DVD arrived in 1997. Once the DVD format arrived, LaserDisc’s days were numbered as a useful movie format. Though LaserDisc did survive into the early noughties, the last movie released in the US is ironically named End of Days with Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 2002. It truly was the end of days for LaserDisc. Though, apparently LaserDiscs continued to be pressed in Japan and possibly for industrial use for some time after this date.

Failure to Market

The primary reason LaserDisc didn’t get the entrenched market share that it expected was primarily poor marketing. As the product never had a clearly defined reason to exist or at least one that consumers could understand, it was never readily adopted. Then VHS came along giving even less reason to adopt the format.

Most consumers had no need for the quality provided by a LaserDisc. In fact, it was plainly obvious that VHS quality was entirely sufficient to watch a movie. I’d say that this ideal still holds true today. Even though there are 4K TVs and UltraHD 4K films being sold on disc, DVDs are still the most common format for purchase and rental. A format first released in 1997. Even Redbox hasn’t yet adopted rentals of UltraHD 4K Blu-ray discs. Though Redbox does rent 1080p Blu-ray discs, they still warn you that you’re renting a Blu-ray. It’s clear, the 480p DVD is going to die a very slow death. It also says that consumers really don’t care about a high quality picture. Instead, they just want to watch the film. Considering that DVD quality is only slightly better than a LaserDisc at a time when UltraHD 4K is available, that shows that most consumers don’t care about picture quality.

This is the key piece of information that the LaserVision consortium failed to understand in the early 80s. The video quality coming out of a LaserDisc was its only real selling point. That didn’t matter to most consumers. Having to run all over town to find the discs, deal with laser rot, having to flip the discs in the middle of the film and lack of video titles available (compared to VHS), these were not worth the hassle by most consumers. It’s far simpler to run out and buy a VHS tape recorder and rent movies from one of many different rental stores, some open very late. Keep in mind that VHS rentals were far less expensive than buying a LaserDisc.

In many cases, parents found an alternative babysitter in the VHS player. With LaserDisc and rough handling by kids, parents would end up purchasing replacement discs a whole lot more frequently than a VHS tape. Scratched discs happen simply by setting them down on a coffee table. With VHS, they’re pretty rugged. Even a kid handling a VHS tape isn’t likely to damage either the tape or the unit. Though, shoving food into the VHS slot wasn’t unheard of by the children of some parents. Parents could buy (or rent) a kids flick and the kids would be entertained for hours.

VHS tape recorder

Here is what a lot of people claim to be the reason for the death of the LaserDisc. Though, LaserDisc never really died… at least, not until 2002. The one reason most commonly cited was that the LaserDisc couldn’t record. No, you could not record onto a LaserDisc. It had no recordable media version available nor was there a recorder available. However, this perception was due to failure of marketing. LaserDisc wasn’t intended to be a recorder. It was intended to provide movies at reasonable prices. However, it failed to take into consideration the rental market… a market that wasn’t in existence in 1978, but soon appeared once VHS took off. It was a market that LaserDisc manufacturers couldn’t foresee and had no Plan-B ready to combat this turn of events.

However, there was no reason why you couldn’t own both a VHS recorder and a LaserDisc player. Some people did. Though together, these two units were fairly costly. Since most households only needed (and could only afford) one video type player, the VHS tape recorder won out. It not only had the huge rental infrastructure for movies, it was also capable of time shifting over the air programming. This multi-function capability of the VHS recorder lead many people to the stores to buy one. So, yes, not being able to record did hurt the LaserDisc image, but it wasn’t the reason for its death.

Stores and Availability

Around 1984-1986, VHS tape recorders were widely available from a vast array of retailers including discount stores like Target, Kmart and Sears. You could also find VHS recorders at Radio Shack and Federated and in the electronics section of Service Merchandise, JC Penney, Montgomery Wards, Foley’s and many other specialty and department stores.

You could also buy VHS units from mail order houses like J&R Music World who wrote in 1985, “We occasionally advertise a barebones model at $169… But prices have fallen significantly–15 percent in the past six months alone–and now a wide selection sells for $200 to $400.”. That’s a far cry from the $600-900 that a LaserDisc player may cost. Not only were VHS recorders and players available practically at every major department store, stores typically carried several models from which to choose. This meant you had a wide selection of VHS recorders at differing price points. While in the very early 80s VHS recorders were around $1000, the prices for VHS recorders had substantially dropped by 1985 helping fuel not only market saturation for VHS, but also the rental market.

Unlike VHS, LaserDisc never received much market traction because the LD players failed on two primary fronts:

1. They were way too pricey. The prices needed to drastically drop just like VHS machines. Instead of hovering at around the $600 mark, they needed to drop to the $150-$200 range. They never did.

2. They were difficult to find in stores. While VHS machines were available practically everywhere, even drug stores, LaserDisc players could only be found in specialty electronics stores. They could be found in the likes of Federated, Pacific Stereo and other local higher end component based electronics stores. Typically, you’d find them at stores that carried turntables, speakers and audio amplifier / receivers. While Sears may have carried Magnavox LD players for a short time, they quickly got out of that business and moved towards VHS recorders.

Because the manufacturers of LD players failed to get the players into the discount stores and they failed to price the players down to compete with those the $200-$400 VHS units, LaserDisc could gain little mass consumer traction. On top of this, the confusion over CED and LaserDisc (and even VHS) left those who were interested in disc based video in a quandary. Which to choose? CED or LaserDisc? Because CED discs and players were slightly less expensive (and inferior quality) than LaserDisc, many who might have bought LaserDisc bought into CED. This reduced LaserDisc saturation even further.

It wasn’t the videophiles who were buying into CED either. It was consumers who wanted disc media, but who also didn’t want to pay LaserDisc prices. Though, the mass consumer market went almost lock-stock-and-barrel to VHS because of what VHS offered (lower price, better selection of movies, rentals everywhere and recording capabilities).

Why Did LaserDisc Fail?

LaserDisc’s failure to gain traction was a combination of market factors including lack of marketing, poor quality media, high hardware prices, unreliable players, CED confusion, and the VHS rental market, but this was just the beginning of its downfall. At the tail end, even though LaserDisc did attempt a high definition analog format through Japan’s Hi-Vision spec using MUSE encoding, even that couldn’t withstand the birth of the DVD.

If the LaserVision consortium had had more vision to continue to innovate in the LaserDisc video space rather than trying to make a LaserDisc player an audio component, the format would have ultimately sold better. How much better? No one really knows. If the consortium had embraced MPEG and made a move towards an all digital format in the 90s, this change might have solidified LaserDisc as a comeback format which could have supported 1080p HDTV. Though there was a digital LaserDisc format called CDV and also Japan’s Hi-Vision HD format, these never gained any traction because the LaserVision consortium failed to embrace them. Hi-Vision was never properly introduced into the US or Europe and remained primarily a Japanese innovation sold primarily in Japan.

Instead, the introduction of DVD is pretty much solidified the death of what was left of LaserDisc as a useful movie storage, rental and playback medium. Though, the LaserDisc media releases would continue to limp along until 2002 with the last LaserDisc player models released sometime in 2009.

What would kill the LaserDisc format? LaserDisc would ultimately die because of 1080p 16:9 flat screen HDTVs, which the LaserDisc format didn’t properly support (other than composite low res or the short lived Hi-Vision format which was problematic). Ultimately, no one wants to watch 480i 4:3 ratio pan-and-scan analog movies via composite inputs on a brand new 16:9 1080p widescreen TV. Yes, some anamorphic widescreen films came to exist on LaserDisc, but that still utilized a 480i resolution which further degraded the picture by widening the image. Of course, you can still find LaserDisc players and discs for purchase if you really want them.

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