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"Even more than turnaround, I would use the word transformation...of the product line...and of the business." -- Recently appointed Ford CEO Alan R. Mulally, discussing the carmaker's worst financial results in over 14 years and what he needs to accomplish Here's Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers bragging about his latest offering: "Make no mistake about it; this is cool," he says, announcing the company's new TelePresence Meeting system on Oct. 23. It is cool, agree many analysts and some customers. But not for the budget-constrained.
With its new meeting technology, Cisco is joining a handful of other companies starting to offer superhigh-quality "telepresence" gear, one of techdom's Holy Grails: videoconference systems intended to make participants forget they're in different places. The people captured onscreen are life-size -- and lifelike: Lips move in perfect sync with the video. There's eye contact. And no audio lag. (To enhance that feeling of togetherness, each vendor installs conferencing rooms that look alike, with the same tables and wall colors.)
As for the price, brace yourself. Hewlett-Packard's Halo system, the priciest, costs $425,000 plus $18,000 a month per conference room for operating costs. Polycom's new ultrapremium RPX product goes for $249,000. As for Cisco's, it'll cost as much as $299,000 for the hardware and $3,500 in monthly costs. At those prices, just those with deep pockets are buying. Customers for HP's system include Novartis and PepsiCo. Banking giant Wachovia plans to use Cisco's to let trading managers worldwide share data and strategies. Wachovia senior vice-president George Mattingly calls the technology "revolutionary."
The new systems could provide a bit of an extra boost to the videoconferencing business, expected to rise by an average of 22% a year through 2010 from $1.1 billion now, says researcher Frost & Sullivan. But is telepresence worth the bandwidth? Many conventional setups, especially high-def ones, are excellent, says Andrew Davis of Wainhouse Research. Some "can provide 95% of the experience of telepresence at 25% of the cost," he says.
Cisco and others hope that the technology will eventually trickle down to uses in hotels, airport lounges, or even doctors' offices. If hardware prices fall far enough, says Chambers, "we can see this in upper-middle-class homes in the next three to five years." Well, maybe his home. A team of scientists at Yale University has discovered that eating sets off the reward center in the brain -- the same center activated by other pleasure stimulators, such as sex, cocaine, and alcohol.
Researchers have known for several years that a hormone produced in the gut, ghrelin, triggers the desire to eat. But they didn't know how. By studying rats, the Yale team found that ghrelin causes the brain to produce dopamine, a chemical that induces euphoria.
Dopamine is key to most addictive behaviors. The more we produce, the more we crave. When the researchers infused ghrelin into rats, the rodents increased their food intake. And when the hormone was blocked, they ate less, even after a 24-hour fast.
Lead investigator Tamas Horvath says the discovery means drugs aimed at treating addiction might also work against overeating, and vice versa. His team is now conducting experiments to determine ghrelin's role in cocaine addiction In a series of new TV and print ads for the BMW X3 sport-activity vehicle, or SAV, the message is clear. Don't call this car a sport-utility vehicle. In one TV commercial, created by Austin (Tex.)-based GSD&M, a driver in a hulking SUV abruptly brakes at an intersection, causing the vehicle's skin to slide off. Left behind: the surprised driver, now sitting in what is revealed to be a pickup truck. "What's hidden inside your SUV?" asks the ad, after which the camera goes to a shot of the nimble X3, which is built on a passenger-car base, not a truck chassis.
Why the emphasis on being not-an-SUV? BMW has long marketed its X3 and X5 vehicles as SAVs. But the acronym has never caught on. Instead, both models are typically called SUVs, a bad label these days, as SUVs fall out of fashion with drivers who bought the gas-guzzlers in the past decade.
BMW marketing manager Patrick McKenna says high gas prices have diminished the appeal of SUVs, even as pump prices are moderating quite a bit. "There are a lot of purchase decisions up in the air right now," he says, "and we have a story to get out." The message to get across, he says, is that "our SAVs perform as well as our cars, with added utility."
BMW isn't the only one trying to lose the SUV tag. Last spring, Cadillac (GM
) was disappointed in sales of its SRX, which had made Car & Driver's "Five Best Trucks" list three years running. The SRX had been informally dubbed a "luxury SUV" by dealers, journalists, and customers. So Caddy began advertising the vehicle as the "SRX Crossover." Sales have risen since then, says Cadillac global marketing director Liz Vanzura, who credits the new moniker. "If you don't define what you are, someone else will," she says. In the hit ABC (DIS
) drama Lost, a band of castaways goes up against a clandestine, globe-spanning operation. But it's what recently ran during the commercials that's truly wild: the first TV ad for the secretive National Security Agency. The recruiting ads ("Where Intelligence Goes to Work") aired for five weeks, until Oct. 15, on TV stations in the Baltimore-Washington area -- one of the "fastest-growing high-tech corridor markets," the agency says.
The NSA, which specializes in electronic eavesdropping, is having a tough time finding candidates qualified in computer science, math, and cryptanalysis, or code-breaking. Thus, the 30-second help-wanteds were aimed at those who like puzzles, even fictional ones: CBS's CSI, NBC's Law & Order, the Discovery Channel's (DISCA
) MythBusters, and Lost. "Our adversaries do their best to keep their plans a secret," the ad's voiceover intones. "At the National Security Agency, we uncover those secrets and keep our own secrets safe."
NSA Human Resources Director John Taflan says that since the start of the campaign, produced by CACI Strategic Communications, nearly 4,000 people have visited the agency's jobs site. How does WorldChanging, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility, print 200,000 copies of a 600-page book and keep its eco-cred? The answer is on the last page of the book, A User's Guide for the 21st Century. Publisher Harry N. Abrams, readers learn, bought wind-power credits to offset the energy used to produce the book, made from post-consumer recycled paper (sparing trees and saving water). And to ameliorate the effects of a 14-city book tour, the group is investing in greenhouse gas reduction, a move reminiscent of the carbon-neutral efforts made by Al Gore (who wrote the foreword) when he traveled to promote An Inconvenient Truth. The book, with its entries on green design and ethical business, can itself be recycled, of course, though editor Alex Steffen hopes people "will pass it along instead." For $90,000 a year, you can get an early idea of what the National Weather Service will forecast. WSI, a corporate cousin to The Weather Channel at Landmark Communications, figures energy traders will leap at the chance to know an hour ahead of time what the nation's official forecaster is likely to say about the 6- to 15-day temperature outlook for different U.S. regions. The head start could mean big bucks on days when the official forecast moves natural gas and electricity prices.
As a forecast of a forecast, the WSI MarketFirst service, due to roll out on Oct. 29, uses the same meteorological data as the NWS. It just runs the numbers more quickly to get a rough idea of what the agency will announce. The map it produces shows whether the NWS will lower the forecasted temperature for a region or raise it.
Ira Scharf, WSI vice-president of energy services, says the company's predictions are right about 80% of the time in areas of the U.S. where weather patterns are most predictable at forecast time.
The Andover (Mass.) company, which does conventional forecasting for clients like American Airlines (AMR
) and Goldman Sachs (GS
), isn't the first to try to scoop the official forecast. But, Scharf says, previous attempts fell short. "We think we have gold," he says. A new survey on the cost of terrorism indicates that for S&P 500 companies alone, the threat has brought direct and indirect costs of $107 billion a year. That figure includes extra spending (on insurance and redundant capacity, for instance) and lost revenues (from fearful consumers' decreased activity). Another finding of the September survey of CFOs, conducted by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and CFO magazine: Some 21% of U.S. companies have reduced employees' air travel since September 11 (as have 17% of European companies). On Oct. 19, a New York Judge ordered Richard Grasso to give back up to $95 million of the $187.5 million he was paid as chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. How will this reverberate in C-suites and boardrooms?"The important part of the ruling is what it says to directors. It's a wake-up call that they have to do the math [on CEO pay packages], ask tough questions. And more important, give tough answers -- like 'No, that's too much."' -- Nell Minow, co-founder and editor, The Corporate Library"I feel sorry for Dick. He did a good job. But that money was egregious. You don't join a not-for-profit and expect to be paid like that. Did the compensation committee do their homework?" -- Muriel Siebert, first female member, NYSE; former N.Y. State Banking Superintendent; president , Muriel Siebert & Co."The precedent-setting issue here: a CEO's duty to inform the board fully about his or her pay and the board's duty to learn those details. Pay formulas are so complex today that even sophisticated directors can't figure out the bottom line." -- H. Rodgin Cohen, chairman, Sullivan & Cromwell