Archive for February, 2012:


Why bother competing with the companies you rely on ?

In a market, where there is already competition, it sometimes seems odd that a new competitor wants to get involved.  Or it sometimes seems odd that a commercial company spends a lot of time developing software which they are just going to give away for free (and not even make any money on consultancy fees).  Google Chrome is an example.  Android is another.  And there are less well known non-Google variants I can think of too.

The principle is simple:  in this day and age distribution costs nothing.  The only cost is manpower.  So if you can afford to spend the manpower to make something good, people will start to use it.

Why might you want this?  Mainly to influence the market.  If you’re selling a product which depends on other people’s products, then you are dependent on what those other people’s products offer.  Google was dependent on the web browser – really on Firefox and IE.  And they had no place in the phone market, because, in the days pre android smart phones were more a curiosity than anything else.  If Google wanted to improve their product, they needed their platform to improve.

But Firefox and IE were not going the way Google wanted fast enough.  And the phone market needed a kick up the proverbial.

So Google entered with their solutions.  Chrome (which brought with it far faster JavaScript parsing, and better reliability features), and Android (which at least now gives the iPhone something to keep up with).  Presumably these cost Google far more than they make – but they ensure not only is there competition in the market they build on top of – but that they control the competition.

Google probably don’t care less if you use an iPhone or Opera.  What they care about is that you can use Google on them exactly the way Google would like you to.

How to make a Windows 8 Article… Insanely Irritating

This article from Forbes is meant to be about ‘How to make Windows 8 Insanely great”.  Unfortunately it fails to be insightful either as punditry, and yet offers no informational content.  In order to explain why it is so bad, I’m just going to have to address each element of the article point by point

The author talks about what hes hearing from Microsoft.  He doesn’t seem to be hearing much, and everything he’s heard rings of the nineties.  Things like touch screens (which really only made a significant impact with the intro of the ipad near the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  Or a Metro interface.  Which – alongside being an interface designed for touch – and an interface with a new design paradigm, also seems to be MS’s first encounter with real, high quality, design – not a characteristic the UIs of the 90s were known for.  Even the Mac was looking tired in those days.  And of course, he has left out lots of other interesting features – Windows on ARM (fair enough, I was using a Risc PC in the 90s, and could run Windows under an emulator… but most people didn’t), an interest in power consumption, virtualization technologies, a better runtime library for new code.  All ignored.  All missing.

What does he care about – apparently people replacing their old XP machines.  People who upgrade once a decade.  Frankly, if this was MS’s target market, they would have gone bankrupt years ago.  MS doesn’t care what the bottom feeders of the industry will do, they care about the people who upgrade quickly and pay for support.  The people the author cares about are not the people who lead change – rather they are the people who will pick up on change when its ready… right now, they might move into ipad space… who knows where they’ll move in 5 years… it all depends on the quality of Windows 8 – or maybe Windows 9 (MS have a habit of playing the long game – their first OS release is the one which makes the changes, the next release then capitalizes on the changes and turns it into a good product)

The author is right that Apple and Google have challenges – but he’s missing them again.  Google create lots of products, not to make money out of the products themselves, but to build up their patent portfolio (to protect themselves going forwards), to keep good people on board (because good people = good ideas) and to lead the market – jumping ahead in technology so the main players int he market have to keep up – keep up in the direction google want them to go.

Apple have to remain cool, but MS can’t rely on Apple losing that cool token any time yet – the main reason for this is that someone has to be cool to take up the crown.  And Apple’s products are good – it’ll be a few years before they start to drift – and thats only if we assume Mr Jobs was the only person at the company with a clue.

Meanwhile MS has its own market.  Pretty much every desktop machine you see is a Windows box.  So are a hell of a lot of laptops and servers (Google and Apple don’t really have any foot int he commercial server market – that is all MS and Linux).  Its the consumer space where MS are loosing the ground – which is why they seem to be building an OS experience aimed at mobile devices.  Its a gamble, but its a gamble to hit exactly  the market the author thinks they should be hitting.  However, meanwhile, they have to keep thinking about the big business side of their company – that has to keep on working too.

So the name:  Windows 8.  Drop the 8 he says.  Well, that’s one way of stopping people from ever upgrading again.  Not a smart move for MS at all.

Stop different options – or to put it another way, stop having multiple price points.  Again, that’s about as bad business decision as you can possibly make if you want to get big bucks from the enterprise space and keep being friendly with the home user.

provide all updates via Windows Update.  Well, there is a case for that – and I fully expect most OS updates to be done online in future.  But they won’t be free.

Make your OS fast – well, from what I see, Windows 8 is fast.  Really fast.  but then so is Windows 7.  The author seems to equate fast with ‘startup time’ – two very different things.

MS has been doing good work with startup time, and, if the author had read any of the tech details for Windows 8 you would see changes to hibernate making starting and stopping your PC much faster.  You would also see UEFI boot – which is much speedier than bios booting.  Windows 8 will turn on and off much more like a TV – certainly as much as a Mac Book does… and we’ve known it will for six months at least.

Leave the apps behind.  Really?  Along with killing backwards compatibility, you’re taking about significantly reducing functionality, and confusing the majority of users.  No, by hiding the old apps, and starting afresh with new apps in Metro, MS is doing the right thing here.

Operating systems should be lightweight.  Actually, that’s a fair argument.  But since we expect Windows 8 to be the base of the next generation of Windows phones, we can tell already:  it is pretty damn lightweight.  I don’t however, expect my desktop experience to be lightweight – I expect it to have the functionality which allows me to be productive.  Sure you could produce ‘Windows Metro Netbook edition’ Or some such to cater for the device market – but that’s a different market – not the home market, not the server market.  Apple have apparently figured it out.  Apparently.  My MacBook (same market space) seems to have quite a few things shipped with it.

Pricing:  Go with an annual fee.  I hate to tell the author, but that’s what the big boys do already.  We license windows.  We pay for our support contract.  It happens on a rolling basis.  The single fee is for individual machines, and people who don’t buy into (or in the authors case doesn’t seem to have heard of) this pricing model.  But maybe they should make it available to the home user… so that every year after I spend my hard earned cash on a windows device I have to keep paying for it to continue to work!

No… none of this would make Windows 8 insanely great.  But let me list a few things that might make a future version of Windows better:

Lets have a system where you can sync your laptop to your desktop, and control your laptop’s apps from your desktop.  Why not sync & control your phone in the same way?  Once a phone is connected to a PC, why not give the PC access to the telephony features – so you can text from the comfort of your desktop.

Presumably users will all have their own SkyDrive account – so let applications use this (don’t rely on apps using their own accounts – that’s taking my data away from me – which is bad).  I want to save a file on my PC, then access it from the same app on my phone.  I don’t even want to think about how I’m doing it or what I’m doing.

Ideally, I want a backdoor way into my desktop PC from my phone.  And to my laptop.  Even if its powered off.  How?  By syncing the disk image frequently – so a power off isn’t just ‘save to disk’ it becomes ‘save to network’.

I want to see the desktop ‘metro-ize’  Why not run each app in their own virtual desktop, and then display them to me separately like metro apps?

Something like Siri would be useful too – but don’t make me have to talk.  I have a keyboard in lots of situations, so let me use that – and make MSiri smart enough to know what I’m asking for – even if that relies on knowledge of my other devices.

Be social.  Frankly, if MS do one thing for consumers, get some really good UI folk working on a social network integrator.  Something that is compatible with every social network you can think of.  There is room for someone to be the best at this, and it would be a killer feature for windows tablets if they had it.
Would these make Windows insanely good? no.  But they would give it a leg up against the competition.  And they would give companies a reason to want to buy Windows tablets rather than Ipads for their workforce.  Which would ensure MS stays insanely profitable

 

Why Bonuses are like Torturing Dogs

The following is a description of an experiment, which, more or less, involves torturing dogs.  Give dogs collars which shocked them at random intervals.   For some of those dogs, make sure the collar stops giving them shocks when they enter a particular area – for other dogs, just keep giving them shocks, randomly.  For the dogs who can escape the shocks, most of them figure out, quite quickly, how to do it.  Clearly the dogs who can’t escape don’t.

Later give the dogs different collars.  Specifically, give the dogs collars that give random shocks, but stop if they jump over a wall to a different area.  The dogs who previously found out how to stop getting shocks quickly learn to jump the wall, and escape again.  The dogs who found no way to escape the shocks don’t even try.  They just lie down, whimper and suffer.

Essentially, the dogs who got the unstoppable shocks learn that there is nothing they can do.  They learn to be helpless.

Now consider bonus culture.  I’m a software engineer – sure I play my part in making my company more successful, but there isn’t much I can do on my own.  I’m part of a team.  Any fixes I make to our code, any features I add, often don’t have an effect for motnhs or years after I have made the changes.  Also I get paid a bonus.

Now, at a previous company, this bonus was related purely to department performance.  Which might sound good – I’m part of the team – I play my part.  If we do well, the company does well.  We deserve bonuses, right?  Well, in a particular year we had a goal : to drive sales to a new high.  And – despite the fact we wern’t involved in sales directly, we helped the sales team in a number of ways – and sales hit the new high.  Unfortunately the way our bonus was calculated was how much we added to the turnover of the company as a whole.  But our departments sales were mainly in europe.  And our company was based in the US.  And the exchange rates wavered.  Despite the fact we had made a new record in sales across Europe, on the day company figures were released, the euro was down against the dollar.  Our success was entirely wiped out by exchange rates.

This made me feel like a dog with a shock collar that can’t be stopped.  I have no control over exchange rates – yet I’m going to be rewarded if they are one way and punished if they fall another way.  I have no control at all.  No matter how much work I put in, the exchange rates are going to beat me.  The bonus isn’t a system that inspires me to work hard – its a system which teaches me to be helpless.

Now at another company my bonus is related to meeting specific goals, multiplied by how well the company has met its goals.  Now int his case, I can’t affect the company’s goals, the company is too big.  But I can affect my performance.  However I have no idea if at the end of the quarter, the company is going to report a big number, or a small number- and so I don’t know if exceeding my goals is worth a lot or a little.

This shouldn’t be a problem:  I like to work hard and exceed my goals.  I feel responsible for how good my work is.  Its important to me.  But psychologists know: when money is put on the table, it changes things.  And it isn’t clear how hard I should work to get my bonus.

Here is what would work better:  Tell me you’re going to give me a bonus based on last quarters results, multiplied by my performance in the next quarter.  That way I know how much my hard work is worth.  But also give me the option of choosing – before quarterly figures are out – of choosing to take my bonus multiplied by the current quarter’s results.  So if there was a poor quarter, I can be inspired to work harder to help change things.

But don’t just give me random shocks and rewards and expect me not to just give up and do my job and no more.  That just doesn’t make sense.

Is the Raspberry PI the future of Dev Machines

With PCs increasingly locked down – think boot locking on Windows 8 tablets, and the rumors about mac istore only application installation, I’ve begun to wonder if the future of real general purpose computers will come in the form of devices like the RaspberryPI.  There is no reason – no ethical reason,  no commercial reason, no logical reason, why the RaspberryPi guys would want to lock their system down.  And its a simple enough device that in theory any number of companies could easily make something similar.

Developers are always going to want open, general purpose, non locked up PCs – I’m wondering if, ultimately, we’ll all be left with RaspberryPI type devices as where we do our everyday work.

Success

You can’t have success without stepping outside of your comfort zone.  If you could, then you would already have success.

To step outside of your comfort zone requires willpower.

Willpower comes in a limited supply.  It can get used up.

You can find ways of increasing your supply of willpower – with practice, or (strangely – but apparently true) by consuming glucose

But the best way to ensure you have enough willpower is to not use too much of it

You don’t have to step too far outside of your comfort zone – anywhere outside is outside and has potential that inside your comfort zone didn’t have

It’ll probably help, too, if you stop doing those things you currently find uncomfortable, but think you have to do (but for which you never see any real results).  They drain lots of your willpower.

And your comfort zone will grow.  Often quite quickly.  You’ll be back inside before you know it.

And if you go out of your comfort zone in a direction which relies on and builds on your strengths – it will hardly take any willpower to get to the point where your comfort zone grows.

And will you have success then?  Who knows.  But if you don’t, all you have to do is take another step outside of your comfort zone.

Gluten Free Kitchen

Apparently – having spoken to some bakers – there is a big demand (and lots of profit to be made) from gluten free food.  Many have said they would love to add it to their repertoire, were it not for one thing:  the EU regulations which specify exactly how non-contaminated their work-spaces have to be.

Now, I’m not knocking the EU regulations – they are there for a really good reason.

And I’m not knocking the bakers – it would be really hard to get their work-spaces quite as gluten free as they would need to be.

But lots of these bakers would only want to cook small batches of gluten free food every so often – certainly not as their main product.  So it occurs to me:  would there be a market for a gluten free kitchen that people can rent?

My guess is that, yes, there probably would.  Such a kitchen could be set up in an industrial unit, and would require a member of staff to supervise and ensure there was no contamination and that the kitchen was left in a reasonable state, and probably a cleaning staff – the costs needn’t be particularly high.  Moreover a communal centre like this would give restaurants, hotels and shops a local place to go to find gluten free food for their gluten free customers – and to let the users network with their competition, and their potential partners.

Lean Publishing and the Future Of Books

I’m very taken by some of the ideas behind lean publishing.  The idea is simple – start writing a book, and when you’ve got something written (it doesn’t have to be much – or indeed good) start selling it via leanpub.com.  As time goes by you add to your book – either more information you’ve wanted to add, or in response to comments from readers.  You submit these updates, and all your books purchasers can access them straight away.  You also have complete control over book price, so you can raise the price as your book grows.

Leanpub also provide some technically very neat tools for converting your book to different ebook formats – but thats by the by.  Its more about the idea.

What leanpub lacks is the ability to sell your book for a trivial amount of money (say 1 cent) – this is probably an effect of the costs of payment processing… but its a shame, almost anyone could write a book worth 1 cent – by the time you reach 99 cents, you start needing higher quality.  They also lack the tools to keep engaged with the reader – not just by providing updates, you understand, but by having in depth conversations – I’m thinking the ideal leanpub type site would have a blog, a wiki and a forum system all built in.

I’ve wondered if you could go even further with books than this. In the same sense that the ideal TV program is now an app, perhaps the ideal book is too.

I’m talking about lots of things… if I’m reading my book on a computer, then I want references to webpages to be hyperlinks, and references to other books to take me to the right place on amazon.  But I want more – maybe I should get a discussion forum built in (possibly even a forum which knows how far I’ve got into the book to stop spoilers).  Maybe I should be able to shop for books the author recommends.  Does the author do occasional interviews about this book?  Then his podcast could be included too.

I’ve also long had a soft spot for sites like dailylit.com which give you chunks of books every day, either by email or RSS.  Something about this form of serialisation of books seems ideal to be for young adult reading… perhaps in a long series like Twilight or Happy Potter you would subscribe to a book, getting new stories as time moves on.

Of course, all these ideas could begin with writing via LeanPub – because all leanpub use for writing is markdown formatted text – and, once you had amassed sufficient text, if my ideas are right, there will be people out there who have written the app frameworks for the sort of ideas i’m talking about, and will be willing to let you use them in return for a cut in the profits – just like LeanPub do with their ebook update offering.

Amazon on Your High Street

Word on the street (you know, that information super highstreet you have these days) is that amazon are planning on opening brick and mortar stores.  How does this fit in with my previous suggestion that the new opportunity on the high street is the apple store for brands (especially publishers)?

At first, quite well you might think.  Amazon are  a publisher, and have a range of their own products they may wish to support or add value to.  And you’d be right – this might jst about work.  But it isn’t a unified brand like Apple is… so while Amazon might be able to bring author speeches and Kindle Fire support, unless they really go in for the ‘community cafe’ approach I think publishers need to adopt I don’t see it being a rip-roaring success.

Because the products they sell are not the thing that makes Amazon Amazon – so showcasing the products isn’t going to be a big success.  What makes Amazon Amazon is excatly the opposite of products – Amazon doesn’t care about what it sells – Amazon care that it is able to sell lots of everything you might possible need at a better price than everyone else and just as conveniently.  Amazon doesn’t tie the user to the product, it ties the user to the convenience (which is why I’m an Amazon Prime junkie).

So I don’t see an Amazon bookshop – or an Amazon iStore – being a success.  But what if Amzon went down the convenience route.  Right now, I get next day delivery (Prime Junkie, see) But what if I want a book or product right now?  Amazon could handle this… they could buy into out of town shopping park stores and fill them with books – both for browsing and with Argos-like warehousing behind.  Now when I buy a book Amazon could offer me “Pick it up right now from …”.  Moreover, they could also offer “Pick it up this afternoon from …” – which might give me access to a far wider range of books (it would be easier, since Amazon would only have to ship from warehouse to specific shops).

Now add 24 Hour opening, and a place from which I could collect all my amazon deliveries (since some people don’t work in an office where they can easily get all their parcels sent to them), and we have even greater convenience – and even less caring about what the product is they are selling.

Sure they could still use the space to promote their authors and their electrical goods.  Sure, it would certainly be the place you would go to if your Kindle broke.  But it would be Amazon, not Apple.  And for Amazon, being Amazon would – I suspect – be a better bet.

 

 

Recommending

It doesn’t seem to be that difficult to write a recommendation engine that works fairly well.  Netflix has one, so does Amazon.  They work.  But they don’t always provide the recommendations I want.

To be clear.  They work at what they are designed to do.  But what they are designed to do isn’t always what I want.

For instance, Amazon sees what I read, and how I rate it, and makes suggestions based on what it sees.  And they are fairly good suggestions.  Except I read thrillers by one particular author.  I do this because I don’t read a whole lot of fiction, and I enjoy what he writes.  Now I know I could, potentially, read a whole lot more thrillers – and the thrillers by other authors which amazon recommends are probably clost to the type of thing I like.  But I don’t.  And right now I won’t.  I have better things to do with my time.  So it would be better if Amazon didn’t show me these things.

The problem is that they show me things they know I will enjoy, not things they know I will  want to read.

Another problem is the ‘I like this / I don’t like this’ choice.  You see if I’m looking for web pages to read, and someone offers me a load of links, I will go through, and if a link looks interesting, I’ll click on it.  Now the cost of clicking is low, so I don’t require much entertainment per click – it doesn’t take much for me to say ‘I like this’.  As a result, I might see a lot of lolcats.  Whereas what I really enjoy might be in depth journalism.

The problem here is I might like something (it may entertain me), but I may not value it.

There is an added concept of valuing here… some people provide short form content, which I like.  and which I consistently like (think Seth Godin, or XKCD, or quite a few people’s twitter streams).  Because I continually like them – even if I rarely value individual posts, I may well value their output over time.

I also want to see things which are new to me.  Not things (or ideas) which I have seen before.  Ideally I want to be quick off the draw.  Now its already clear I am influenced by certain individuals (Lets say Seth Godin… but lets also say Jason Kottke), hwta I would like to do is be influenced by their influencers.  I want discovery to come as part of whichever recommendation engine I use.  (Incidentally, this may apply to netflix… I want to see the films [and books, TV and web pages] which inspire the writers or directors of the films I love)

I don’t have a solution to this.  I’m thinking it would be nice to have a recommendation engine which monitors everything you consume (perhaps in some nice privacy aware way), and lets you not only ‘like’ it but also ‘value’ it and perhaps ‘dont show me as much stuff like this’ it.  But which spots trends in when you like things (so that perhaps it might realise I like everything by a particular individual – and that I perhaps value that individual’s output), and which is also able to spot what your influencers are likely to be influenced by – and give it to you straight away.

Finally it shouldn’t recommend me things to buy, click on or watch which I don’t want to buy, click on or watch.  If it really really thinks I would like something, it should construct a link that tells me exactly why.

I don’t quite know how much of this is possible (but start doing it well, and the metadata might come) and I don’t know if people really like recommendation engines outside of online shops (it seems with reddit that community ultimately trumped recommendation).  It is, however, what I want.  Because my life is too short for lolcats, and too busy for most generic thriller authors.

[although, should I suddenly be in the mood for a new thriller or a fantastic lolcat, I really ought to be able to ask the engine to find me the one I would be most likely to both want to read and enjoy]

How TV Should Be

Lets say we wanted to reinvent TV (like everyone expects Apple to), how would we go about it?

Right now I susbscribe to some number of cable packages (lets count the Beeb’s licence fee as one of those…), I may also download from the various iplayeralikes, and buy content (mainly from itunes in my case).

What if apple (or a rival) could convince the TV companies to allow people to have pay as you go subscriptions – something along the lines of this:

At any time you may purchase 1 month of our channel’s programming – which you can watch when you want during the month – but when the months up, its gone.  That isn’t too different from the iplayer and standard cable models.

Also, you can buy any of our top programmes – either as a rental (a week to watch, but it vanished 48 hours after you’ve started watching… in the same vein as sky boxoffice) or for good (like with itunes)

And since we let you do that, why not let you buy or rent films…

We would probably start getting new channels – after all, netflix fits into the new monthly model.

We could also add ‘oyster card – like’ deals (if you rent enough of our content, everything else you buy from us over a given period will be free)

All we need is for the tv set to have a single payment mechanism which everyone agrees to use.  Which is where the monetization strategy comes in.  Do this well, and in time, you’ll be able to give widescreen tellys away for free.

The TV could recommend programs that you can watch for free – or programs you would like which will cost you money (there are ad dollars to be made with the latter).   Add the social media features I’ve suggested before, and you have a new TV model, which democratises the platform in a range of interesting ways.

But of course, this isn’t the future.  Because in the future, the new program will be the app.  We know this, but it’ll be a long time before channels figure it out.  If the right TV manufacture gets this right now, they can get everyone onboard… and then become the app store!

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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