The High-Tech Texan Blog

Monday, February 28, 2005

Ding! Southwest Airlines Launches A Marketing Flight

Full disclosure - I love Southwest Airlines. Been flying SWA since I was a little boy growing up in Dallas. I've owned a few shares of stock in the company since I was 13. I flew so many times one year I had a Companion Pass - the equivalent of an "everyone wants to be my friend" trophy. I've got a lot of LUV for Southwest.

They are marketing geniuises. Low fares. Peanuts. Fun attitude. Herb. Double credits when booking online (alas, those were the days).

But the darling of the airline industry and one of the few profitable carriers is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Or at least get us to eat more peanuts. SWA debuted a new service that sends price fare alerts directly to customers' computer desktops. The product, called DING!, can be downloaded from Southwest's Web site. Once downloaded it is located in the bottom right-hand corner of your desktop where other application icons are located.

I should love this feature. I love to fly and appreciate the lowest fares available. I'm The High-Tech Texan. They are a Texas-based airline. This is technology at its coolest, right?

Southwest said it came up with the service because shopping for deals online can take up too much time. Maybe. But I already believe they offer some of the lowest fares and when I search for low fares I go to their Web site and look at prices for the route I want to fly. That's 23 seconds out of my busy day.

What DING! gives Southwest is something much more valuable than filling seats on its planes. It gives them presence on computer users' desktops. And that space is priceless. If you don't believe me ask Bill Gates. He has spent untold millions of dollars in legal fees defending Microsoft's right to place their own products (namely Internet Explorer) on every computer that comes installed with Windows. That's roughly every computer in the world.

(note to my Macintosh fans - relax. Southwest's DING! product is not yet available for Macs so your point is moot).

An icon on your desktop or in your system tray can be the equivalent of gold. It's because these applications, services or Web links are constantly top of mind. There they are, all day. Staring at you while you gaze back at your monitor. One click and you are surfing on their site. That's one-click away from potentially booking an airline ticket, for example.

I downloaded DING! and I expected to book a trip from Houston to Vegas for $39 each way. Still waiting. I did find my first DING! deal. I could go from Hobby to Providence, RI, for $90 each way. A quick check of the SWA Web site found a savings of $9 each way. Grant it, $18 total is a lot of peanuts but enough to give Southwest the opportunity to have access to my eye balls every time I sit at my PC?

I would like DING! better if it worked like a true interactive application. Let me completely see a deal and book it through the DING! window that pops up. Here is where Southwest reveals this is more of a marketing tool. All of the buttons on the DING! are actually links to their Web site.

Click "Book Air" or "Check In Online" and you are free to move to Non-stop.

And landing on a Web site is the frequent flying goal of most every company with Web presence. Usage numbers and Web traffic can increase significantly which means companies can make more money on banners and ads (though SWA does not run ads on its site). More traffic can get a Web site listed higher on search engines; a pinultimate goal for a company with lots of competiton.

I like the fact that my favorite airline, my hometown airline, my airline that I partially own (maybe one bolt on one wing) continues to be on the cutting edge of technology and wants to continue offering some of the lowest fares in the air. But don't pass it off with a press release that made headline news touting it as a way to save time when looking for online fares.

There's much more at stake.

(note: I will keep using DING! for at least the next 30 days. Hey, I'll get two bonus flight credits for just staring at that orange and blue airplane tail on the bottom right-hand corner of my screen!)

XM means Xtra Money

The satellite radio wars became more even-sided as XM announced it will raise its monthy fees to $12.95 - a 30% increase from its current $9.95 monthly rate. It's competitor Sirius charges $12.95 per month for its 100+ channels of digital radio. Coincidence or not?

XM was the first-to-market satellite radio brodcaster and boasts over 3 million users. Sirius claims to have about 1.24 million subscribers. Both companies deliver crystal clear programming dedicated to different music genres, generations and genders. Like 80s tunes? XM and Sirius each have channels that play non-stop Duran Duran and Toni Basil. News junkie? Take your pick from CNN, CNBC and even BBC information.

But each provider is upping the ante with niche programming trying to get new users to select its service based on their particular interests, hobbies and passions. Sirius drew the biggest headlines when they signed Howard Stern to a reported $500 million deal that will put his daily show exclusively on the Sirius satellites beginning in early 2006.

Add to their current NFL and NBA packages that allow subscribers to listen to every game and their recently inked multi-year deal with NASCAR, Sirius is posing a serious threat to XM's market share lead. Oh, XM has Major League Baseball. (yeah.)

I first experienced sat radio about two years ago when I was test driving a GM car with XM radio (GM has a deal with XM to install nearly 50 models exclusively with XM receivers). I loved it. All 80s all the time. Local radio? Oh yeah. Not my Houston stations but rather KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. Nothing like Rick Dees talking about the morning congestion on the 405.

It was only a matter of time before I got an XM receiver installed on my own ride. But I waited until I actually got my own new ride. No use, I figured, in putting new radio gear in a car that I would get rid of soon.

Fast forward two years later and I finally did get a new car. And I did install satellite radio. And I got Sirius. Why? I kind of had to. My new BMW was pre-wired for Sirius thanks to a parthership they created last year. All new BMWs will be installed only with Sirius gear when you go through BMW dealers. No XM for you - unless you opt for a third-party installation which may void BMW manufacturer warranties. I wasn't taking chances with an expensive car and a 5 year everything-included warranty. Seriously.

Luckily for me I am a huge football fan and come this fall Sirius will allow me to listen to my beloved Cowboy games. Not too bad since Cowboy games have not been heard on Houston airwaves since the Texans moved to town. Howard Stern? I could care less about him. NASCAR is not too bad to watch on TV but I have a hard enough time spotting my fave drivers on the tube; can't imagine how hard it would be to LISTEN to their positioing during drafting and slingshotting at Daytona.

So to me the field is kind of level when choosing XM or Sirius. The monthly fee will now be the same. The number of channels will approximately be the same. The programs I enjoy like music, news, comedy and general sports are pretty even. My decision came down to the equipment and integration offered by my car manufacturer. That made it easy on me.

But if I decide to get a home or portable satellite receiver - and can have my choice of equipment - I'd probably have to go back to the drawing board or maybe play eeny-meeny-miney-mo. (But I'd still probably go with Sirius as subscribers get a break when they activate additional radios).

Your thoughts on satellite radio? Post your comments below.

Monday, February 21, 2005

NASCAR. A Lesson in Sponsored Technology

Anybody catch the Daytona 500? I fall into the "semi-auto racing fan" category having been to an Indy 500 about a decade ago. Nothing like standing five feet from the track when cars zip by at 200+ mph. The closest I get to that feeling now is when I head towards the Galleria on the Southwest Freeway, sometimes hitting half of that speed when my radar detector is spotting for me.

But I felt the need - the need for speed - again while watching The Great American Race last Sunday. And it's all about the high-def. FOX did a nice job catching the bumps, yellow flags and pit stops with its 720p broadcast, Cable Cam and slick, colorful graphics. In fact, programs produced like this may one day hurt live attendance. After all why would I want to sit on bleachers in the hot Florida sun watching blurs go by every three minutes when I could be sprawled out on my couch teaching my kids the finer points of restrictor plate racing.

Or sitting in front of my computer. That is actually where I "watched" some of the Daytona race; logged on to the NASCAR Web site. The words NASCAR and Web site go together like duck hunting and champagne but I have got to hand it to Brian France and his boys. The organization's CEO has not only embraced technology but he went and dern near slingshotted his older brethren with the more established initials. Namely the NFL and MLB. (NHL is now a very distant cousin, once removed).

It's kind of my job to sit at the computer and review Web sites and gadgets. But I was almost giddy while monitoring the TrackPass features on Got a favorite driver? I don't. But I now know more about Kurt Busch than than my own sons. The technology they place in the cars let Web visitors follow cars around the track with GPS telemetry. In HTT terms that means you can check out each car's speed, RPM, throttle and brake data.

It was almost like watching a video game. There was the "trioval" of Daytona International Speedway and there go the little colored, numbered dots. Mouse over a dot and you'd get instant information on the car's vital data. The only fact I couldn't find was the driver's blood pressure.

I still got a kick out of watching the TV broadcast (I can do that thanks to my P-O-P. That's my picture-out-of-picture technology with a TV sitting next to my PC). The FOX play-by-play guys (or is that lap-by-lap) were too busy blowing sunshine up Little E's tailpipe near the end of the race to realize that the sport's top face, Jeff "Alimony" Gordon, took the lead with two laps to go. I don't know the difference between a Dale and an Ernie but I know when a rainbow-painted car passes a Bud-logo'd car.

And speaking of sponsors, I LOVE the loyalty of those drivers. I'm serious. I understand the business I am in is indeed a business and you have got to give love to your sponsors. Without sponsors there would be no race on FOX or no technological advances on the Web. This fact was summed up quite clearly when Michael Waltrip (the #15 NAPA Auto Parts Chevy car driver) was asked how he felt when his engine blew out with less than 40 laps to go. Before he could explain something about a piston or a rod, the first words out of his mouth were his thanks to the "NAPA Auto Parts, Domino's Pizza, Best Western, Oreo car." It made me hungry.

(And did anyone notice that every single commercial starred Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? I mean EVERY single commercial. They could have strung together his spots and counter-programmed half a season of The Simpsons).

I doubt I will watch much more of the NASCAR season this year. Baseball is just around the corner and (moment of silence, please) football is just six months away. And oh yeah, I do have a wife and three kids to spend my Sundays with. But thanks to sponsorship deals NASCAR has with Nextel and other providers I can always sneak a look on my cell phone during race day to see how Kevin LePage is holding out (the #37 Patron Tequila Dodge car). Come to think of it I'm a bit thirsty...

FOOTNOTE: NASCAR signed a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio on Tuesday. All races will be heard on 100% digital radio for the next five years. NASCAR will receive $107.5 million. This should sell a lot more satellite receivers down in Bubba-land. Possible dilemma: will the broadcasts be COMMERCIAL free?