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.

And to boldly go… again.

I have watched Star Trek, as most have,  when I was very young. It used to come early in the mornings on Doordarshan, India’s only channel at that time. And then I watched it again when I was 14, and this time the world had globalized (it was yet to become “flat”). Mr. Rupert Murdoch (who I would better get to know later on in life as the man behind Fox News) had brought Star Plus to the huge Indian market. This time around it used to come late at night, and now I was allowed to stay up at night – well most nights anyways. So I consider myself kind of lucky to have seen at two very different, but young stages of life. So anywho, the show has a special (aww) role in my life has been established… 

I loved Star Trek. It was awesome, as awesome as an early summer movie should be. We are asked to go boldly back in time when James T. Kirk was born and Spock was learning how special and hard it was going to be to live as a Vulcan and a human. The movie would have been great if it was to be just a story of how these two very unique icons of American film culture learn to live with each other – both different aspects of the human brain: one instinctive and the other objective. I enjoyed that interaction as much as I enjoyed Spock captaining Kirk for that very rare moment. But it is more than a back story… the action is amazing – missing is the predictability of a Star Wars lightsaber fight and the over indulgence of sci-fi effects… it is just right. The litmus test for a remake is the casting and it is perfect – very hard to do that when the old characters are so firmly embedded in your brain.  And isn’t it so cool when the backstory actually makes sense… 

JJ Abrams has definitely brought it back… in style. A must watch for human, vulcan and a fan.

And on the 101st Day…

The President rested.

Not really. On his 101st day as the President of US of A, Barack Obama probably woke up and went about his day doing what he has been doing for the previous 100 days – fixing the mess left by the Bush bunch. So I do not quite understand this pause to smell the roses or this desire by the media to give the President a grade on what are not even his mid terms… so while the media celebrated/vilified (depending on if you were watching MSNBC or Fox News) the first 100 days of Barack Obama, I choose to do something different. I am marking his 101st as the President.

What about the grade you ask? Well I give him an “Incomplete.”

But what I am going to do, more for me than for those reading this blog post is to express my impressions of this young Presidency.

Or let’s KISS – keep it simple stupid and let me jot down the keywords/meta-tags I associate with the object: President Barack Hussein Obama after the first 101 days in office:

Tags: pragmatic, calm, soothing, appeaser, conciliatory, smart, able, athletic, young, promising, deliberate, upbeat, anti-Bush, spender, borrower, articulate, charming, wise, presidential, husband, cool, promising, future, cunning, media-savvy, professorial, comfortable, leader, nerd, leftie, lefty, humble, web 2.0, engaged, engaging, father, writer, thinker, disciplined, politician, philanthropic, daring, brave, democrat, thoughtful, historic, witty, intellectual, thank God he is not Sarah Palin

This by no means is exhaustive… and I am sure more tags will get added as the days goes by. It has been a decent start: I am very happy about certain approaches like the foreign policy and not so happy about others like his fixes for the banking sector.

We definitely needed a change in the words we spoke to the world, and the way we spoke those words. Obama brings that very refreshing change of humility (“If you’re ahead, shut up and stay ahead”) and a conciliatory tone. To some it may seem a weakness, but to me it is a sign of strength. It takes a secure man and a nation to admit his/its faults. I loved the town hall meeting he had with young students in Turkey.

As far as the banking sector is concerned, I tend to trust scientists when it comes to science, doctors when it comes to medicine and economists when it comes to economics… and economists seem to believe that a temporary qausi-nationalization would have been the more painful but quicker solution to the crisis. Barack Obama is a politician and no where it is more apparent than in his approach to the auto-industry and the banking sector.

But, as I said, it has been a decent start Mr. President – you are Reagenesque in behavioral economics, Roseveltic in long term solutions and Clintonesque in articulation of those solutions.

Yep – decent start.

Seeking: A Community Manager

After a meagre community organizer became President of United States, you would think every company out there would be looking for a community manager. Fire a CMO, hire a CM.

This blog post is heavily inspired by Micki Krimmel. So thank you Micki, from the community.

In the industrial age, if Monster.com was alive, I would probably see job postings for factory workers and if Craigslist was accessible in the agriculture era, I would probably be seeking another farmer, but this be the knowledge era and this be the knowledge era 2.0, when knowledge is increasingly social while remaining inherently personal, when masses go on the web and become communities, when pushing knowledge has given way to pulling knowledge. Yep it is definitely an interesting age to be alive. Beats being a factory worker in London in the 30s…I tell ya.

So in this new age when pull beats push, listening beats talking and the community already exists, you need someone to understand what is being pulled, why it is being pulled, how it is being pulled and who is pulling it? You also need someone who  listens before he talks… and you need someone who is managing (insert your favorite verb here: organize, engage, relate to… etc.) that already existent community. You need a community manager.

Who are community managers? They are “creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” They are the ones that give your customers a hug when they need one and your company a conscience when it doesn’t have one. Now if AIG had a community manager… okay bad example.

He is the customer’s lawyer on your company’s board, he is your communication gateway to your customers and if your brand is Jesus than he is your Pat Robertson.

So how do you hire for this really important person? Rather, who do you hire? Hint: your company’s biggest fan will make for a pretty good community manager. Love is contagious….

So when you do hire this biggest fan of yours, make sure he has the autonomy and is able to move around the company and learn from/about every department. And definitely make sure that he has authority. Well at least more authority than the silly PR firm you hired, that you do not need.

And community managers: you are in a unique position because before you exercise that authority you have two questions to ask:

1. Is this good for the company?

2. Is this good for the community?

So anyways get working on that job posting for knowledge era 2.0 – Seeking a community manager.

Content to Context

So lot of interesting details at the Web 2.0 Conference this year. The general theme: from content to context.

What do I mean by that?

To measure content, you have to understand the context around it. Vague? Thought so… let me try and explain it this way:

To me as a content owner/provider it is important for me to measure the metrics (number of views) around the content, but to understand the true impact of the content, I will have to measure the context (user comments) around it.

To me as a viewer of that content it is important for me to see how many of my friends liked it, but it also becomes important for me (in order to get a “complete” perspective) to understand why they liked it.

Basically, how content when treated as an object, relates to the viewer/reader/listener is the context of that piece of content.

And that seemed to be the general theme of web 2.0 this year. Conversations were largely about the effect that web 2.0 technologies have had and how people (It’s the People, stupid!) are beginning to relate to those technologies.

The single biggest difference from the last time I attended the same conference: things are beginning to make sense. Business models are actually a lot more tangible than they once were. Web 2.0 is no more about: build it and they(users) will come. But it is about they(users/communities) are already there, how best can our business models relate(engage/organize) to them. And that is evolution.

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The question that was on my mind before the conference and sorta remained unanswered after was: how do you measure social? And then how do you scale it?

Answers are beginning to form… but we are not there yet.

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Interesting question someone asked someone: How can you tell a web 2.0 “dude” from a web 1.0 person?

Answer: A web 1.0 person will always talk to you about the internet, as if it was a network of computers… a web 2.0 dude will talk about the internet: as a network of people.

Even a CISCO talks about the human network.

Our next bubble might be the commodity market. But this new genre of social web entrepreneurs are for real. Believe you me, this is not the dot com bubble… the social web + green technology + biotech is where long term sustainable growth will come from.

Oh by the way, I suck at making predictions.

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A shout-out to Eric Ries. I sincerely believe in the work he is doing. It directly affects the way we are doing things @ Marcellus. He is a great thinker and a wonderful presenter.

Another shout-out to Clara Shih and her extremely relevant book: The Facebook Era. Great read.

My Lonely Blog

Resolution: I am going to post more often.

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Update: Still a mac user and a happy mac user at that. T’was the iPhone that pulled me in. But I am not complaining.

Web 2.0 was great. There has been quite a visible evolution in the web space, it is making sense now. Well at least it is making more sense than it did. Details need a separate blog post.

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Twitter thinks it is worth more than a billion. I don’t know one way or the other, but I like the attitude. And I also know that it ties in really nice with Google’s bigger picture.

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I feel that the Europeans trust President Obama (PrezBO henceforth) more than they trusted W. And that is a good thing.

I am a Mac user

Yep… day 1 involved downloading Firefox 3… how many days till I give up and install Vista?