A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

24 September 2012

Interlude: Fandom

How culture and history are collected by fanatics, and why this is a good thing.

I'm not in the mood to write about the 3Com merger today, although that is the next chapter in that saga.  I'm not really looking forward to writing that part, so it may take some time for me to work up to it.  Today, instead, I want to talk about "fandom."

The word "fandom" is a noun meaning, roughly, "a community of people (fans) who are fanatically devoted to something."  I consider myself a member of two fandoms -- Disney fandom, and science fiction (SF) fandom.  I suspect, although I do not know, that the term "fandom" was in fact coined by the SF fans (who also use "fen" as the plural of "fan", "fannish" as the adjective form of "fan", and "fanac" (short for fannish activity).

One characteristic of fandoms is that they tend to create their own jargon. (And one characteristic of SF fans is that we tend to be pedantic, so forgive me if I'm explaining more than you care about.)

Fan communities have risen up around pretty much anything you can think of, from aerobic dancing to Zappa.  Fandoms are both significant enough to culture, and odd enough to observe, that several books have been written about them.  My point in writing about them is that they make an extremely valuable contribution to our cultural identity and history as humans.  As such, fannish contribution to culture will very likely be a key piece of my organizational culture book.

Here's what fans do that is so very important.  They obsess about their fandoms.  They learn about their subject to a level of detail that other people find stultifying. They collect staggering quantities of stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills.  They talk to each other, and in their talking create an exhaustively complete story of the thing that has captured their interest.

So you get entire museums devoted to Pez memorabilia or mechanical and coin-operated toys and games.  There are two American museums devoted to barbed wire, for heaven's sake.  You get individuals who own entire runs of Superman comics or every bubble gum card ever printed for a New York Yankees baseball player.  Things like postcards, campaign buttons, ticket stubs or party invitations that would otherwise be lost to history are lovingly preserved by fans.

Is this stuff important?  I don't know.  But I do know you can learn a lot about American history, and particularly about the attitudes, mores and cultural fads of a given period of history, by reading comic books and looking at postcards or paperback novel covers.  I also know that there are people who matter to our history whom we struggle to understand because we have nothing but a half-dozen letters and a photograph from which to build an entire biography.

Another valuable aspect of fannish service is how it held onto all this ephemera before technological advancement made it practical for things to be digitized.  It's easy to keep these things now -- we back them up to disk.  But even as recently as the 1980s, that was prohibitively expensive and difficult to do.  The bulk of the 20th century, and certainly every century prior, was more likely to be dustbinned than to be archived.  And we would not just have lost ticket stubs and postcards.  We would have lost out-of-print books, music, and art that was not deemed "significant" enough to preserve.  Thanks to the devotion of fans, many treasures of the last few hundred years are still around to be digitized.

Fandom, then, is really just cultural anthropology being done without a college degree and solely for the sheer, crazy love of it.  We are so very fortunate to have fans and fandoms.  They are writing our history in exacting detail, and saving for posterity the things we wouldn't know to miss until after they were gone.

11 September 2012

Connect NOW!

Now that we were on the market with a proprietary "end to end solution," we had two complementary goals.  We wanted as many end-users to buy our x2 modems as possible, and we needed ISPs to buy (or upgrade existing) U.S. Robotics server-side equipment so the consumers would have someone to talk to using the x2 protocol.

So we created a goal.  One year to the day after the original x2 announcement (October 16, 1997), there would be 1000 ISPs worldwide with x2 server-side capability.  In order to track our progress, I started sending out a daily email message to the sales and marketing teams to let them know how many ISPs we had signed up so far.

The message was called "Connect NOW!" and included the statistics on the number of x2-enabled ISPs (and the number of countries in which they were located), the number of x2-enabled points of presence (meaning actual phone numbers you could call to connect to a server), and the number of cities where customers had at least one x2 provider choice.  This was followed by a short inspirational message to keep the sales and marketing teams motivated.  On some days (more often early on than later) I included specific lists of providers.  A couple of times over the course of the year, we produced paper booklets that we sent out to stores, so customers could find out if their particular city or ISP was on the x2 band wagon.

The message always concluded with the same tag line: "x2. Get Hooked!"

As we got close to our goal (and our deadline) in September 1997, I added regional emails to update and motivate our international teams.  So the Europe folks began to receive the "x2 EUROLINK," which added a line for the number of ISPs deployed specifically in Europe, and a message tailored to them, as well as their own tagline: "x2. Break the Barriers!"  The Asian teams received "x2 AsiaConnect," while the Latin America teams received "¡Conectarse AHORA!" (with a tag line, in Spanish, that translated to "why surf when you can fly?")

I loved writing these messages.  They gave me a chance to fire people up, make them laugh, and perhaps provide some inspiration to do something they wouldn't otherwise have done.  I was in the office, and I had a direct line of communication with the engineers, the product managers, the senior execs -- everyone who understood the "big picture" and had the power to pursue good ideas from the field.  With the Connect NOW message, I could pass along critical information in small chunks, and urge the field folks to come back to us with ideas and feedback from customers that we could use to boost our mind share and our sales.

I talked to one of our "store power" guys one day (a USR employee whose job was to build mind share in retail stores), and he informed me that his home metro area was dominated by an ISP that used our competitor's "K56Flex" technology.  He suggested that some type of tie-in promotion with one or more x2 ISPs would help sales of our products.  I championed his idea back at the home office, and we were able to get some marketing funding and attention to create his proposed promotion.

On October 7, 1997, nine full days before our deadline, we met the goal.  This is the text I sent out that day.
Connect NOW - 1000 ISPs LIVE TODAY!
10/7/97 12:16 PM CST

1006     ISPs deployed with x2 technology in 32 countries
16,129  local phone numbers
3,685    cities worldwide!

It's a momentous occasion for all of 3Com, and especially for the heritage USR team.  Today we are proud to announce that we have deployed over 1000 ISPs with x2 56K technology.

We have employed an independent research firm to validate the entire list, and expect that process to be complete on Monday.  On October 16, the one year anniversary of the original x2 press release, we will announce to the world that we have secured over 1000 ISP partners.

This is a very exciting milestone for us, and a terrific marketing and publicity tool.  We can provide an easy, affordable high speed modem access solution to literally millions of subscribers all over the world.  No competitor even comes close.

So if you are one of the people focused on this project, give yourself a HEARTY pat on the back, and high-five some coworkers.  And no matter what part of 3Com you play, please join us in our hour of glory!


Next up: Crossing the Bridge: The 3Com merger as context of the year of x2