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TECHNOLOGY

Behind the Scenes of an Overhyped Launch

Mobeam, a start-up partnering with P&G on digital coupon scanning technology, made a big announcement. Maybe a little too big, in fact.

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[This post has been updated since it was originally published.]

You can understand why tech companies use a fair amount of hype in their marketing. The desire to get out ahead of other competitors in a quickly moving market is almost irresistible. And when you’re a small tech start-up and manage to land an important partnership with a company such as Procter & Gamble, you want the world to know the importance of your work.

However, as high tech has proven time and again, companies can push so hard on promotion that they lose credibility, and that’s exactly what Mobeam—a start-up with a software system that lets a red laser scanner read barcodes on smartphone screens—did Monday. To announce its digital coupon partnership with P&G, it released a statement with the title, “Filling the $3.7B hole in mobile commerce.”

Mobeam’s technology, one is supposed to gather, has a secret that no other tech company has been able to discover. And it is true that typical scanners used at POS systems won’t pick up an image from a screen. As mobile becomes bigger in commerce, consumers will want to show a coupon on a screen rather than carry paper around, so it’s clearly going to be an issue.

But where does the $3.7 billion figure come from? It’s not in the release—but it should be. If you’re going to mention a key number like that, you should immediately offer back-up for it.

Even worse, a company should do enough competitive research to know when to back off before sounding silly. I asked the PR agency whether this was at all like Groupon, which arms merchants with an iPhone that can scan its coupons directly from a smartphone screen. What followed was a back-and-forth exchange that finally ended with the rep acknowledging that, yes, Mobeam’s technology is a bit like Groupon in the way it captures codes directly off the screen. 

Where Mobeam differentiates itself is by working with the existing red laser scanners commonly used in retail POS systems. Groupon uses a separate system that employs iPhones because the company isn't integrated into the software its merchant partners use. However, Groupon shows that scanning coupons from existing cell phone screens is possible.*

There’s one other to thing to notice about this company’s launch: The PR rep argued that Mobeam accomplishes this without requiring any changes to a merchant’s POS system. No details how, but a little searching on the Mobeam site came up with an answer: The technology is integrated into the cell phone. Instead of asking merchants to change, the company wants to convince Apple, Samsung, HTC, Motorola, and everyone else to integrate its solution.

Just a few problems here:

  1. Mobeam must talk manufacturers into adding more cost into their devices by including this technology.
  2. Even with broad hardware vendor buy-in, it would take years to incorporate the technology, cycle through upgrades, and get enough consumers with the right phones to be able to use the system, let alone adopt it.
  3. A merchant can already make a change in the scanners it uses, without changing anything else in its POS system, to scan barcodes off screens by switching to a camera-based scanner.

As TechCrunch pointed out last year, there is already a screen-centric mobile payment system that uses barcodes and non-laser scanners, which are “fairly common.” It would be great for retailers if such a system could suddenly come into being without them having to swap out equipment, but waiting for integration into phones isn’t the most effective way to get there.

Unfortunately, in pressing its agenda, Mobeam has left itself, through its agency, looking unaware of the competition and, therefore, hyperbolic. If you plan to approach the press about your big tech launch, do it smartly. Don’t expect that everyone will be anxious to jump on the phone if you can’t make a reasonably convincing case in an email or on a website. Oh, you may get someone to uncritically bite at the story, but you could make a muck of things as well.

*I updated this point to clarify how Mobeam's technology works.

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Dec 19, 2011

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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