Web X.0

To say social media is in a state of ascendancy is to say man continues to evolve… I mean it’s quite obvious isn’t it? Two companies that occupy the most mindshare when we look to the silicon valley to make ourselves feel better abut the economy are primarily social media platforms – Google and Facebook. The third company (or the first) on that list has been a critical driver in that growth – Apple continues to, more than any other company, provide the most intuitive ecosystem (device, platform, distribution channel) that enables a group of content consumers to become a community of content producers. And that is the story of web 2.0… And that is becoming the story of man.

Take the revolutions (and you hope it is a good one) in the Middle East for instance – social media has played a huge role in creating the awareness of the status quo, providing the moral impetus for change and then providing the tools for organizing towards that change. The dictators of yesterday had prepared themselves for the push communication technologies of yesterday and had no answer for the pull communication that Twitters, Facebooks and the Googles of today have enabled. This revolution brought to you by the good people that bring you: search, social networks, real-time trends, blogs n micro-blogs and mentos-bursting-in-coke videos… Maybe we don’t need the State Department anymore? I think I just heard Sarah Palin say: I wanna blog that on my Facebook page… I was kidding.

So as I start of this year’s expo… I am expecting to hear a lot on best practices, the meeting of here and now mobile applications with the presence of copious amounts of social data and maybe a little of where do we go from here?

More later.

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The Daily

A few quick notes on News Corp.’s “The Daily”. Hard to say if I like it yet, but I can certainly see the value-add (to the plethora of iPad reading choices) in it. This is a decent attempt to combine traditionally delivered pushed-media (loud voices like news headlines, opinions from opinion-makers) with new pulled-media (the noise from twitter feeds, blogosphere – coalesced as trends/citizen journalism) on a multimedia rich interface (btw, 2 of the more relevant 360 viewpoints i have seen – cowboys stadium and Egypt today from a street-level).

I also like the attempt at personalization/localization. The app is slow to load the current edition, but i appreciate not having to pick the subscriptions that fall out of the magazines and the joy of having to fold a newspaper when done reading.

The one thing that still bothers me is subscribing to a News. Corp. editor… A Roger Ailes view of the world as it is and as it should be doesn’t hit as you start reading… But then, Mr. Murdoch is a business man and maybe a right-wing approach to journalism (contradictory) isn’t good business on the iPad.

So yeah don’t know if i will buy the subscription at this point and am thankful to Verizon (did you hear they are finally getting the Jesus phone?) for the free trial.

innovation.gov

Fareed Zakaria mentioned the White House Innovation White Paper on his show today… and I was surprised: the white house has a white paper on innovation?! Maybe, that is the Republican/libertarian in me. I expect such white papers to come out of the “Jobs, Gates and Alliances Inc.” industry. I do not expect the government to play a significant role in innovation…

Zakaria went on to elaborate areas of innovation that the government has spurned:

– without the Department of Defense there would be no semi-conductor industry

– NASA was a key buyer of the nascent computer industry

– DARPA invented the internet (sorry Al Gore fans, but that is one of those inconvenient truths)

– it was the military that spawned the use of GPS, way before there was an “app for that”

and that got me thinking, the government does have a role, and a specific role to play in the innovation economy – it is supposed to and should provide a climate for innovation. Not innovation itself, but the climate for innovation:

-a tax structure that facilitates business spending

-investment/spending (depending on if you are a democrat/republican) on research and education (and yes making sure that research is happening on an “operationally excellent” basis)

Singapore spends 6.9% of its budget on innovation – matching that would mean we will have to spend close to $700 billion on innovation climate. We can borrow that from the Chinese, right?! They love giving us money..! Well borrowing $700 billion for innovation climate spending is better than borrowing money from China to fund tax rebates that give $600 to most people (sorry Warren Buffet – you missed out) to spend on Walmart items made in China!

So I guess, by now, I have ideologically left the Republican camp and am on the other side… but practical solutions calls for pragmatism, that does not believe in ideology whose time has come and gone, but in solutions that work. Treating political parties as sports teams is silly… The times are changing and we are still having debates that are based in ideology and are conducted by mostly loud fundamentalist leaders, who are able to get away with euphemisms and political commentators, that take refuge in esoteric concepts…

So, just like Zakaria and other don’t-have-a-team people,  I am hoping that President will outline an agenda, that focusses on long term sustainable growth and how we can keep continue to file the most number of patents than any other country out there.

(btw – “China accounted for more than two-thirds of all cleantech IPOs in 2010 – 63 out of 93 launches globally, including 8 of the 10 biggest IPOs.”)

The Human Interaction Platform

One of the main reason that we are seeing the tremendous growth in smartphone adoption is because the operating system, for the most part, is invisible. I always considered “Settings” to be less intimidating than “system preferences”. “System Preferences”  is the place your tech-savvy nephew goes when you cannot get to your Facebook page, even after restarting your computer 5 times (though restarting twice is hope, and anything more is pretty much lighting  a candle for Technolopolus). Although “System Preferences” is less intimidating than its Windows counterpart: the “Control Panel” – <joke> the inspiration for CNN’s Situation Room… </joke> Always trust Redmond to make everything a tad complicated and then feel the false joy in using something complex… I never got that.

Point being it is much easier to use a smartphone than to use a computer. The smartphone just works, while the computer tells you stuff like “The instruction at “0x000000000” referenced memory at “0x00000000”. The memory could not be “read”. Click OK to terminate program” when you are trying to launch Word. Cool stuff if you are watching a science fiction movie, not so cool if you have a term paper due tomorrow. Some might argue that the two devices serve two completely different functions: one is a smartphone and the other is a computer. Not really – when was the last time you used your desktop computer to compute something? Both devices connect us to content that matters – the difference is the smartphone (and the new tablets) is primarily a content consumption device, while the PC (and I use the term interchangeably for both Windows Superior (Apple) and Windows) is used for both production and consumption. The difference is inherent because of the form factor. It is more convenient for me to type/research/copy and paste this post on my Macbook, than it is for me to type this on my iPad or iPhone.

Which still does not let explain, why the operating system still plays such an important role in the usage of a computer… for the computer to become even easier to use, the operating system has to become invisible. It is a lesson that Apple has learnt from iPads and iPhones and is now applying it to laptops and desktops, effectively turning the computer into an appliance.

Some might argue against it – the computer has to be a puzzle for the brain to solve, instead of being a tablet that displays pretty stuff. We need that to stay smart. Really? That’s the argument – complexity for smartness’ sake? That is smart…

It is yet another cue take Microsoft needs to take from Apple – the operating system has to redefined as a human interaction platform. A platform that is invisible to the user and easy to develop apps for any garage developer… That simple, but essential change in philosophy will help.

Interestingly, the Xbox is heading there, with the new Kinect which makes interacting with content even more personal than ever… the innovation in the Xbox has happened because it has been treated as a start up funded by MSFT, rather than a division of MSFT. In all fairness. MSFT is applying lessons learnt from consumer services to the enterprise – Sharepoint 2010 is a CMS with social networking features… so good job there. But not realizing the difference between a truck and a car clearly shows a lack of understanding of where the world is heading – remember the AT&T tilt with a stylus and the Windows interface… doesn’t that seem so 1970s?

Facebook Dilemma

Here is something I did not know: Mark Zuckerberg wears hoodies with the company mission printed on the inside. I am not quite sure how that makes me feel about him… but it is one of those things they might ask when you are at the $64,000 question on “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”

So I learned this interesting (admittedly redundant) piece of information watching the Zuckerberg interview at All Things Digital Conference – a good place to be, if you are looking for broad, opinionated strokes from the CEOs companies that matter in the digital space.

But what is relevant and useful in that interview is Mark’s view on the fine line (and it is a fine line) between personal privacy and the need for sharing of information to make the internet more personal. Zuckerberg is the CEO of a company that is the market leader (some may argue that broadly speaking Google is in the same space and therefore the market leader) in monetizing social data (information + interaction). It is how they make money and it is in their best interests to qualitatively/quantitatively refine that social data. The more we share and the more we interact with people on Facebook the more data Facebook has to monetize.

So in essence, the” more open and connected” (Facebook mission) the world is, the better it is for Facebook. The mission is noble and makes money for the company.

Then there is the other side – privacy. This is what concerns a significant user base. Current Facebook snafus have done little to convince users that Facebook will protect their information with the same zeal that banks and hospitals protect (are required to) their information.

I say snafus because they were not errors in judgement, but in communication and overall execution. Consider the defaulting of privacy settings to “Facebook recommended”; once Zuckerberg explained why it was done and how it was done, it made whole lot of sense to me. This should have been communicated with the user base and the new user sign ups before implementation, with an opt out option made available to the users on that same communication. Simple – this is why we were doing this, this is how it makes sense for you and you can opt out if you don’t like it.

Then there is the whole generation thing. Young people are more comfortable sharing personal information, older folks tend to be more careful and deliberate about what they share. Also, there is a segment of the US population that is obsessed with “Big Brother voyeurism” in their lives. So when you have such a diverse user base, it is important to come out of your monolithic silicon valley view of the world and conduct some online focus groups to see how important changes to the platform are going to play out. I don’t expect them to let you change your mind about the implementation, but it will give you some useful data on how/what to communicate.

Then there is the interface issue. It is hard for non technical folk to understand groups/access lists/containers…. Facebook can take a cue from Apple here and revamp their settings interface a little and make it more interaction friendly…

Then there is this side of me that thinks… maybe Facebook wants to make it hard for me to control my data…. but then there is this other side of me, that wants to believe Zuckerberg is serious and sincere about creating a more open and connected web… and in spite of the recent The Social Network, it is my trust in the new nerd God and his mission that is winning. For now.

The Day the Music Died (no MJ tribute here)

I have not written a blog post in some time, so that gives me – the communicator (wannabe) – the fundamental right to vent and rant.

I am pissed at me (word from our sponsors: Despicable Me is out in theatres) for thinking Umair Haque has been full of shit recently. I thought his head was in the clouds (Up in the Air is out on DVD) and he was hanging out with Bill (Maher) and Richard (Branson) smoking doobies and blowing the fluff in the faces of his readers (that would be me – told you it is about me). So why this epiphany, you ask?

It was the Apple press conference. Those that do not know me well and those that do, will tell you I am a major Apple fan (check out my black turtle neck collection at apple.com/stilladork).Like huge man – it’s like Apple is Justin Bieber (relax there is an explanation as to why I know of him) and I am my little cousin, who with a comb in his hand tries to style his hair like Bieber 80% of the time he awake. Well, okay… it is not THAT bad – but the point being: I love Apple products. But that is not the reason I love Apple, the reason that I am so enamored over a tech company is because they are not a tech company. At least they don’t think like one. I am in IT… to the normal human, I am the stereotypical geek, who carries two PDA’s (I do), one laptop and the iPad (that was supposed to replace the laptop), the only original DVD in my collection: Star Wars (I don’t) and someone who gets a power trip out of having “admin” rights to a machine (Napoleon should’ve been a tech. Would’ve saved the blood n money). So to this geek, Apple is great, because it takes the power away from me and gives it to the users. There is no greater goal in IT, then making IT more personal and personable to the end user. I love it to see geeks squirm blaming Apple for taking away their power. Knowing how to right-click, doesn’t make you feel smart anymore, eh?

Then there is the idealism. Apple truly believes that it is not about the market share; sure the market share is a bery bery important thing. But the market-share is a consequence (not the goal) of getting up every day and believing that your single purpose as company is to make great products that people love using. Some (geek alert) may deride them as toys for adults, but isn’t that the whole point though? Using technology should be easy and if you are lucky it should be fun. Applied technology is an extension of our natural senses as human beings… we have used technology to feed and enhance our senses (plug opportunity: retina display in iPhone 4 is amazing!). This interaction if complex can kill the personal relationship between a user and his/her content (and enter desktop support). Apple makes this interaction fun and simple (and natural). Consider the John Ives quote (paraphrased): “For us, it is about removing everything between the user and their content.” Ah the elegance of thought! The C becomes the PC, once the user’s personal data gets on it. It is about “I” first and then the device (iDevice). For all the people that are afraid of using their computers, and have no idea what “runtime memory error” means, they should contact their systems admins. No, I was kidding. They should have hope – a tech company that sees the world from their perspective is the numero uno (press 2 for English) company in the world. About time my brother. About time.

If the boy king has returned and has rightfully claimed his throne – why am I upset? Well because Apple has started doing things that are very un-Apple like. It has started looking like Steve’s left the building and Apple is being run by Nixon. First there was this over-the-top reaction to a lost phone, then the reception-issues with the iPhone 4, then the deleting of comments referring to the Consumer Reports report that does not recommend the iPhone 4 (still calling it the best smartphone out there) and then there was this sneaky press conference on Friday.

Sure you are giving free cases. Sure the iPhone 4 has been the most successful launch Apple has ever had. Sure this problem is not unique to the iPhone 4. We get that. What I did not get is why is this an engineering flaw and not a design flaw. Is the Jobs ego so confusedly bloated now that instead of presenting rational arguments, Apple chooses to hide behind the technicalities of the English language and not admit that the best design company in the world could make an error in the design of a product. Why was Bobs Mansfield present at the conference and John Ives absent? I am okay with the band-aid proposed, what I am unhappy about is the assessment of the problem. It is important to me that Apple admits and fixes problems like these with the same fanfare that is associated with its product launches. That is what leaders do, that is what they are supposed to do – take control of the issue, admit to the mistakes and present a clear-cut plan of action, while reminding their users why they make these products (okay they did that last one). I think the great communicator lost this communications battle. So what if the Bold has the same issue? I have a freaking iPhone in my pocket for a reason.

And what the hell is up with this censoring of information?!? Closing your eyes doesn’t cause the world to disappear. You guys have an unplugged hole in Gulf of Mexico spewing oil by the boatloads? Was that you? I expected better.

Maybe I am over-reacting to this one incident. You are allowed one mistake after a decade of clean, right? Maybe the problem comes with being number one and having the highest market and mind share? Maybe.

But I expected better.

So what does this have to do with Umair smoking weed with Bill and Richard? Umair talks about the current economy being a ponzi-economy. A system that rewards companies for doing bad -I need to buy a house. To do that I will get a loan I cannot afford (shift the risk to the bank). The loan approval officer approves it, because his bonus structure is tied to the loan getting approved (risk shifted). The bank looks the other way and its investment banking arm packages these loans as derivatives that investment guides push to their clients (risk shifted). Banks are not worried at all because they are too-big-to-fail and tax payer will bail them out (risk shifted). Cycle repeats itself and a bubble is created. So you see there is a inherent incentive in the system to conceal information and transfer the risk.

I believe (Umair does not) that it is meaningful value creation that is at the heart of Apple’s renaissance. “Apple had to go back to being Apple” – said Steve. “Do no evil” was Google’s motto, that Apple practiced. The last two months were weird and this time there is no Gil Amilio to blame.

There is no “Secret Sauce”

In the recipe for entrepreneurial success one comes across an oft used phrase: “secret sauce.” Venture Capitalists talk about it, in fact they look for it. When we were fund hunting, we were asked about it…. hell I even wrote a post about it.

It even came up last week in the self-SWOT analysis… and if our meeting notes were ever leaked, you would see that someone said:

“If you can provide your customers with products that are solutions to their problems at affordable price points then you are adding value in a market place. As long as you’re adding value in a market place, you survive. You don’t need sauce, gravy or toppings for that.”

And forget “the recipe”, this is the reality. The real litmus test you should take, or the self-assurance you should seek when designing a “business plan” is: are you adding value to the marketplace? If you are, then you are in the same boat as 37signals, animoto and  Facebook… no secret sauces but real, meaningful value-addition to the marketplace.

No denying secret sauce has its value… odds of achieving success are increased. Secret sauce also helps (to an extent) to answer scalability, makes positioning easy, mitigates competition and exponentially increases profitability (G-O-O-G-L-E). And all factors you will find in those assessment sheets that VCs use to grade your business model.

But the “el dorado”dinian search for the secret sauce should not lead to paralysis. There are other ingredients that also help with increasing the odds in your favor.

Customer-driven development helps.

Short product development cycles help.

A good team definitely helps.

And adding value to the market really helps.

And all of that is scalable as well.