"This will be her opportunity to give her account of what happened." -- Penguin Group USA spokesman Will Weisser, on ousted HP CEO Carly Fiorina's deal to write a memoir, due out in fall 2006
PC industry circles have been buzzing for months about slipping customer support at Dell (DELL), a claim bolstered on Aug. 16 by a University of Michigan study that showed a hefty drop in customer satisfaction from a year ago. So the last thing Dell needed was for someone to turn the issue into a cause c?l?bre.
Enter Jeff Jarvis. Over the summer the media critic and popular blogger began writing on his personal blog, BuzzMachine, about his lengthy quest to fix a $1,600 computer, an ordeal that, according to him, included countless e-mails, some unanswered, and phone calls to Dell's service line. Jarvis wrote that he bought a service package that included in-home repairs, but when the PC overheated and malfunctioned, he was told to send it in. He did -- and wrote that it still wasn't working upon return. Jarvis launched a series of attacks, including an Aug. 17 open letter to CEO Michael Dell: "The bottom line is that a low-price coupon may have gotten me to buy a Dell, but your product was a lemon, and your customer service was appalling." On Aug. 22, Jarvis finally got a refund. A day later he blogged that Dell's new policy of tracking down unhappy bloggers "is a start."
Jarvis' rants struck a chord with other Dell customers. Daily visits to BuzzMachine have doubled, to over 10,000, estimates research firm Intelliseek. Among the responses: "Dude, get an Apple (AAPL)." Dell is adding more call centers and improving training for phone reps, says consumer chief John Hamlin. As of Aug. 24, Dell had not replied to Jarvis' open letter but says it is "happy to talk with him as a customer." That might yield a happy ending -- if he doesn't get put on hold.
Menthol evokes smooth refreshment, but for African American smokers, it may be lethal. Researchers have long puzzled over why black male smokers are 30% more likely to develop lung cancer and die from it than are white men, even though they smoke fewer cigarettes. New Harvard research points the finger at menthol cigarettes, which are favored by more than 70% of black smokers. Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed the menthol in several brands and found much more had been added to those cigarettes labeled as light or ultralight. Because menthol is a numbing agent, they said, the high levels may lead to deeper inhalation.
That helps explain earlier studies showing smoking-cessation programs are least successful for black menthol smokers: They may draw in more addictive substances along with menthol. Gregory Connolly, a Harvard professor and lead study author, says that while "smokers may believe the term 'light' implies a reduction in disease risk, this is not true, and menthol may be playing an important role in this misperception." The study appears in the August issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research.
Sabotage in Iraq, an oil workers' strike in Ecuador, storms in the Gulf of Mexico -- there's little good news in energy markets. That helps explain why oil hovers around $65 a barrel. But one source of price pressure could ease: The feds will soon finish filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The reserve, set up in '75 to guard against major oil supply disruptions, should hit its target of just over 700 million barrels in early September. The Energy Dept. has been filling the salt caverns under Texas and Louisiana since President George W. Bush ordered a big boost after 9/11. Recent purchases averaged 80,000 barrels a day -- a trickle compared with U.S. daily consumption of 20 million barrels. But the purchases represent a good chunk of the world's 1.5 million barrels of spare capacity, says Deutsche Bank (DB) analyst Paul Sankey. The latest energy legislation mandates a boost in the reserve to 1 billion barrels, but no money has been allocated for it.
Throughout August, 133 Japanese TV stations are airing commercials to promote the importance of...commercials. Japanese advertisers, like those in the U.S., worry about growing use of digital video recorders, now in 15% of Japan's homes. By letting users skip ads, DVRs have knocked $489 million off the value of commercials to advertisers, says the Nomura Research Institute. To win back viewers, the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan named Aug. 28 TV CM (commercial) Day. In one spot, singer Aya Matsuura works a puppet that says, "Commercials are fun, aren't they?" adding, "It's ventriloquism, so of course I'm made to say so." Viewers, of course, may skip these ads, too.
A Chicago running-gear store has a new angle on speed dating. In an Aug. 17 promotion, 30 couples ran half-mile loops in a park before switching partners. After huffing through five moving mini-dates each, everyone adjourned to a bar for more spontaneous mixing. The runs themselves proved revealing. One guy told his partner he'd have to slow down to avoid leaving her in the dust. "Instant turn-off," says Cori Mack, 29, a physical therapist training for a marathon. The shop, Momentum, expects to stage a repeat in the spring.
When Jonathan Karp resigned as editor-in-chief of Random House in June, there was speculation that he was leaving book publishing altogether. But Karp, 41, says he just wanted to follow a long-held belief that "talented authors deserve a massive amount of attention." As publisher and editor-in-chief of new imprint Warner Twelve at Warner Books, he can do just that. As the name suggests, Warner Twelve will release just 12 books a year (starting in spring, 2007), with Karp personally editing each. In an industry that issues 200,000 titles annually, he's hoping to produce one-of-a-kind works that cut through the noise. "By promising authors and their literary agents that we will publish nothing other than their books for a full month, we're saying...we will do everything we can to make people pay attention to you."
During his 16 years at Random House, Karp edited a string of best-sellers, including Seabiscuit and The Orchid Thief. Now he just needs to find another dozen winners.
A welter of new U.S. passport rules are wreaking havoc with the travel plans of some Europeans. On June 25 a little-known rule kicked in requiring all travelers, including children, to carry their own machine-readable passports to enter the U.S. Previously, young children could in some cases travel on their parents' passports. The change -- part of the Patriot Act -- applies to 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program, including Britain, France, and Germany. "We feel very, very disappointed, angry [and we're] sorry for the ones we were supposed to meet," says Marie-H?l?ne H?mon, a French citizen who was turned away at a Paris airport, from which she planned to fly with her two children to the U.S. for a two-week vacation. The H?mon family lost $3,700 worth of plane tickets through the mishap.
A case of post 9/11 overkill? The State Dept. says the requirement makes the U.S. safer and helps prevent child abductions. In the next two years, the U.S. will tighten rules in at least three different ways for countries in the Visa Waiver Program. Philippe Laloue, secretary general of a trade group representing 1,300 French travel agents, says the U.S. could do a better job of communicating changes. U.S. embassies sent out press releases and held round tables with airlines. "You don't want people pissed off because they can't get on a plane," says the State Dept.'s Angela Aggeler. But she concedes that the agency unfortunately can't reach everybody.
Beethoven may soon find himself in the iPod Shuffle mix beside 50 Cent and the Black Eyed Peas. On Sept. 7 the largest independent U.S. distributor of classical music, Naxos of America, plans to sign a deal to allow the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA) to digitize Naxos' 70,000-track catalog of symphonies and operas, making hard-to-find files accessible to more Internet consumers.
Naxos already has deals to sell music through iTunes, Napster (NAPS), and Rhapsody. However, the complexity and length of classical pieces means that fitting a lengthy Mahler symphony into one audio file is like "trying to fit a basketball through a garden hose," says Naxos President Jim Sturgeon. "There are just too many movements to download it the way you would a five-minute pop song."
New software will digitize Naxos' tracks more efficiently so that pieces can be found by artist, title, and genre. That is how listeners search the music networks, where classical tunes now account for as little as 2% of the available downloads.