Monthly Archives: August 2009

Imagining the Tenth Dimension

As a sci-fi buff, I always loved the idea of traveling in the fourth dimension. Four dimensions I get. But my eleven year old son Neil is a budding string theorist, and one day tried to school me in how there are ten (and exactly ten) dimensions. My response was to smile indulgently at the precocious lad–then vacate the room quickly before he could realize I had only the foggiest idea of what he was referring with all those extra dimensions. (Why ten? Why not six or 23 or infinity?)

But now, if you can hang through the fifth dimension part of this well-presented, but admittedly mind-blowing video, it’ll all be made clear…

Late to the Party: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

During Comic-Con, I was introduced to Joss Whedon’s latest project, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. I’d vaguely heard about this one last year right about the time I was neck deep in work trying to get ComicBase Atlas out the door, so I never actually checked it out. Apparently, it was a project thrown together during the writer’s strike between fan-fave director Joss Whedon and his brothers, and starring Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), and Felicia Day (The Guild).

Amazingly, the whole thing was originally released on the internet for free and quickly became a fan phenomenon. Now, however, it’s out on DVD, and Shiaw-Ling managed to snag me an autographed copy so we all sat around in our hotel room at the convention watching it…and it’s great! Whedon funded the entire project himself, and even though it’s available for free from various outlets, I have no problem recommending the $9.48 DVD (both for the extras and just so Joss can get some of his money back!)

One of my favorite scenes is here: Self-aggrandizing super-hero “Captain Hammer” (Fillion) has just recognized Dr. Horrible (Harris) out of costume and informed him that he’s about to make off with the girl Horrible has a hopeless crush on just to spite him:


To All Software Vendors: Keep It Real on Upgrade Prices

OK, upgrades are on my mind a lot right now, and I don’t want to tell anyone how to run their business—it’s hard enough running my own. But to all you software vendors out there, can we please keep it real when it comes to upgrade pricing?

I’m catching up on phone messages and emails after our big cameo on the silver screen, and among my many messages were two from the vendors of some development tools we use in-house. These are fairly expensive products, and the messages were pleas to buy their latest and greatest. Although I’m happy with the products in question, I won’t be jumping on either upgrade deal anytime soon.

The reason? The programs in question cost several hundred dollars apiece, and the upgrades in question were incredibly minor (e.g. “now with better support for Word 2007 XML export!” or “more responsive menus! [I’m not even kidding on these]). But, because I’m a valued customer—the companies in question are offering me an upgrade discount of…about 15-25% less than buying the whole product over again.

To wit: the first product costs $799 to buy in the first place, but upgrades can be had for the special upgrade price of just $599 (but only if I act now–otherwise the upgrade price goes up to $699!) In comparison, upgrades to ComicBase typically run about 1/3 of the original price ($99.95 for the upgrade to the $299 Archive Edition, or $49.95 for the $129.95 Professional Edition).

Normally, I’d just shake my head in disbelief, but this time, in a fit of misplaced inter-company generosity, I made the mistake of actually telling the salesman of the special $599 upgrade why I wasn’t taking him up on his kind offer:

“Hey look, let’s say I get $800 worth of value out of buying your product from a starting point of nothing, which is pretty much the minimum I’d need in order for it to make sense to buy a $799 product in the first place. That’s not chump change for me, and the product really has to deliver in order to meet that. But when you price the upgrade at $599, you’re saying the difference in value between the two-year-old version I’ve already got and the new one is by itself worth 75% as much as a whole new program.”

“I mean, are you really telling me that the ‘Improved Word 2007 XML support’ is such a great feature that I’m going to get 3/4 of the value from it alone as I did going from nothing at all to the current version?”

I didn’t think so either.

What the salesman apparently didn’t recognize was that when you ask me to buy a $699 upgrade to a $799 product, it was less a question of upgrading, than trying to sell incredibly similar software to someone who already owns a copy. Upgrades are generally easy to sell: you’ve already found the customer, and done at least one thing which makes them happy. New purchases are much harder. And that’s effectively what they were asking me to buy.

Honestly, though, I sympathize with anyone running a business, and we all have to choose our best shot at a strategy for success. Ours is to keep upgrade prices as low and attractive as we can make them, and be as aggressive as possible with the data and feature set so that our customers really look forward to each year’s upgrade.

Every year, it’s really a game of, “What can we do to make this version so awesome that anyone whose subscription just ran out will be dying to grab the next one?” We don’t want to merely justify the upgrade price, we want to pack in an excess of value so that as many people as possible will feel that grabbing the current upgrade is one of the smartest buys they’ll make this year. (And I for one completely believe this–especially in the case of ComicBase 14! I know that we won’t get everyone to upgrade every year with this strategy, but our customer retention rates have been known to make a lot of other companies green with envy. And that’s the way I want to keep it.

But that’s just one man’s opinion. I wish these other folks the best of luck with their strategy (and I really do enjoy their products). But please, stop calling to ask why I didn’t grab the new version this year, and get your engineers to do something more than “improved menu speed” to justify an almost-the-same-as-new “upgrade” price.

ComicBase and Atomic Avenue Go to the Movies

A couple of weeks before Comic-Con, I was heading out to grab coffee at the Starbucks across the street when a strange call came into the office. Joe answered it, and I could hear him saying things like, “You want to borrow what?” and “I don’t think we normally loan that out…” to the caller. I stopped, puzzled, and made pantomime motions to Joe along the lines of “Who the heck is that, and what do they want?”

It turned out that the “Who” was the production company working on the new Working Title/Universal Movie “Paul” (Written by and starring Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost). The “What they Want” was to borrow our Atomic Avenue rocket–indeed, our entire show booth–for use in the movie, where they apparently were called on to restage Comic-Con for several scenes.

Cut to yesterday, and I was sitting in an extras holding room in the Albuquerque convention center. It’s a room full of  Stormtroopers, Steampunks, a platoon of Princess Leia’s (slave girl version from Episode 5) and the odd green-skinned woman ala Star Trek, the original series. In short, it was exactly like every movie you’ve ever seen portraying extras looks like. We were along for the ride playing ourselves, manning a slightly stripped-down version of the ComicBase booth (no computer monitors).

Unfortunately, I can’t go into any details about the movie, but it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it certainly gives you a whole new perspective on the monumental job it takes to bring a motion picture to life. For instance, a small army of craftsmen and set decorators just days to recreate Comic-Con, and legions of production assistants are constantly handling everything from errant wookie costumes to set calls. The actors are also working their butts off, doing take after take (yesterday ran from 6am to after 9 pm) in scenes that–when they’re all cut together–will probably just look like a couple of guys having a laugh. And to his great credit, Neil also worked “booth duty” right up until the very end, and is back for the second day of shooting today.

Gotta run–they’re ushering the “attendees” into the hall, and it’s time to man the booth…