The Trackpad Killed My Computer

From Joanna Stern’s Review of the Asus Zenbook UX31 at The Verge:

As I was working on writing this review in Google Docs, the cursor somehow decided to open an Asus utility called WinFlash, which then began to reformat the BIOS. (I’m really not even sure why this is included!) Oddly, I couldn’t stop the process and before I knew it, I had a totally dead system. Yes, the trackpad actually killed the UX21.

Wow… If I made that story up, do you actually think anyone would believe me? I’m gonna say no at this point. Details matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a baker, a waiter, a factory worker, or a computer engineer, details matter.

For the record, I actually own a single Windows-only computer which happens to be a less than 1-year old Asus laptop. It works ok, though it does have a very finicky touchpad (what PC’s don’t?) and I think it has a faulty GPU as well. Keep forgetting to get that taken care of…

Beautiful Tribute Music for Steve

If you haven’t yet had the chance, I highly recommend watching the “Celebrating Steve” event that Apple held on October 19th at their corporate campus in Cupertino. You hear from Tim Cook, Jonny Ive, Bill Campbell, and Al Gore. Jonny Ive’s comments are particularly poignant. But if you want to hear some amazing music that might bring you to tears, listen to the last song sung by Norah Jones, which is “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. One of my very favorite bands, Coldplay, also sings a great rendition of “Fix You”, which was also very fitting.

Don’t miss it if you have the time.

Where were you when you heard that Steve died?

We’re probably getting to the point of Steve Jobs memorial overload, but I thought it prudent to share just one bit of reflection on his passing. Much has been said and much will continue to be said about Steve’s accomplishments and his life. The recent release of the Steve Jobs authorized biography by Walter Isaacson has shed much public light on his sometimes very private life.

While Steve was a very flawed individual, it’s hard not to feel a connection to him as he brought into the world such amazing products that are meant to make an emotional connection. Consumers want to love their products. They want to do amazing things with them and do it easily. When devices give average people the power to do amazing things very easily, they start to have an emotional attachment to those devices. Steve was the face behind those devices, even though there was countless others behind the scenes that put their blood, sweat and tears into the work as well.

I remember where I was when I heard that the Challenger exploded. I remember where I was when OJ was acquitted. I remember where I was when the towers fell. And now I remember where I was when I heard that Steve died. All tragic events of varying magnitude to be sure. Why is it we remember so many events of tragedy and yet fewer of triumph? What amazing world events do you remember that are of triumph and joy instead of tragedy?

Android’s fragmentation: whose problem is it?

The topic of fragmentation within the Android ecosystem continually pops up from time to time. For evangelists of opposing platforms (and I probably count as one of those people), they like to bring up the issue as a point of showing how inconsistent the platform is and how it drags down the user experience.

Let’s assume for the sake of this article that Android, as a platform, is very fragmented. But we’re not going to assume that fragmentation is inherently bad for all people. It may in fact be very good for some, so let’s just leave that issue to the side for now.

A blog post making its way around the internets today comes from Michael DeGusta at theunderstament. I’m including his chart below for reference.

Android & iPhone Update History by Michael DeGusta

What Michael contests is that it comes down to an issue of support and that Apple is crushing it in this area and thus also driving customer loyalty (is that a shock to anyone that Apple would be driving loyalty?):

It appears to be a widely held viewpoint that there’s no incentive for smartphone manufacturers to update the OS: because manufacturers don’t make any money after the hardware sale, they want you to buy another phone as soon as possible. If that’s really the case, the phone manufacturers are spectacularly dumb: ignoring the 2 year contract cycle & abandoning your users isn’t going to engender much loyalty when they do buy a new phone.

…In other words, Apple’s way of getting you to buy a new phone is to make you really happy with your current one, whereas apparently Android phone makers think they can get you to buy a new phone by making you really unhappy with your current one.

It’s a fair argument, but I don’t know that it’s altogether there. People talk about the Android platform as this singular unified thing, when I actually believe that it is quite the opposite. The Android ecosystem is actually fragmented by design. Google created it and is licensing it for that expressed purpose that it can simply be chopped up 15 ways from Sunday in any manner you like. What we often fail to remember is that you and me, as consumers, are not Android’s (and by proxy Google’s) customers. We are merely another part of Android’s complex ecosystem of cash generation, but we don’t generate the cash from buying our phones or using our minutes, rather we generate Android’s cash by searching and utilizing Google’s wide array of free, ad-supported services.

The beauty of Android’s ecosystem is in it’s flexibility: it can be just about anything to any manufacturer, but if you want to create an iPhone like experience, a manufacturer would have to create the entire experience on their own. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are prime examples of companies trying to do that now with their locked down Nook Color and Kindle Fire.

But now let’s return to the previous idea of whether fragmentation is distinctly a good or bad thing and who it impacts. For Google, even though they act like they care, I’m not sure why they would. Android is clearly the highest selling mobile platform with no imminent threat of that changing anytime soon. They seem most concerned about what pundits say, but it’s hard to say whether they actually care about changing the culture or not when the results speak for themselves. Now let’s look at Android’s partners, the manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, etc.) and carriers (Verizon, at&t, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.). Each manufacturer is producing multiple phones for multiple carriers. The phones vary widely (again, another benefit of the platform) in both features and price, yet also now we’re finding in operating system version as well. I’m guessing the profit margins for the manufacturers differ widely as well and with so much internal Android competition happening, new phones being introduced and launched virtually each month, there is a palpable pressure for a high frequency of releases.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, when all of your effort is on more devices, more carriers and placating each carrier with their own customization (if they don’t placate the carrier, someone else most likely will, which makes Android differentiation tricky), why would these companies care about long-term support? What’s in it for them? Customer switching costs would be quite low since there is a variety of Android handsets on each carrier from multiple manufacturers. How do these companies differentiate themselves?

The answer is they can’t. They’ve effectively turned the majority of the ecosystem into a commodity for the average consumer. I would bet yesterday’s donuts that the best selling Android handsets right now are not big name high priced ones, but they’re the “free on contract” devices that always seem like the best deal at the time (even though we know it’s not in the long run of the cost of the service). These devices are commodities, quickly to be replaced with the latest hotness coming next week. It was bound to happen once the market matured enough and the effect will only accelerate going forward.

So the question is, does this really matter to consumers that the manufacturers won’t support their device a year after it’s launched? While those of us who already get great support say yes, my guess is that the majority of average consumers simply don’t care. That’s the effect of a commoditized market.

The biggest new thing: The Thermostat

Things like this really inspire me. I was a semi-finalist in St. Thomas’ 3rd Annual Fowler Business Concept Challenge and now that I’m halfway through the first semester in my New Ventures Strategies Class, my entrepreneurial spirit is awakening big time.

Years ago I was inspired by great photography. As a photographer myself, I saw the work of fantastic portrait and wedding photographers and I said to myself, “I can do that!”. And so I did. That same inspiration I used to get from amazing photographers like Denis Reggie, I now get from ideas like this one from Wired). The article is about the new Nest Thermostat.

A THERMOSTAT?! Why on earth would anyone care about building a new premium, high priced thermostat?! What problem are you solving? Is the market asking for this or are you trying to create a market? In short, I believe this in innovation that really changes the world. Is it coincidence that one of its founders is Tony Fadell, one of the original creators of the iPod?

Take an industry with zero innovation, that essentially hasn’t changed in decades. Yet here is something that everyone has in every home. It also has a direct effect on energy usage, but more importantly wasted energy. Remember those old stats of “If everyone in the US replaced one incandescent lightbulb with a CFL, we would save XXX tons of carbon each year…”. Now take out lightbulb and insert Nest Thermostat.

And lastly, you can tell that they’re on the right track with ideas like this:

An unhappier discovery came when Matsuoka learned that some of the Nest’s prototype testers were unhappy with her algorithms. She had instructed the thermostat to proactively set temperatures for efficiency: Once it learned when people were out of the room, it greedily lowered temperatures in winter and raised them in summer. But people felt that the Nest was forcing them to change their behavior. It was like Al Gore himself was in the room, barking at you to put on a sweater.

So Matsuoka changed the algorithms, shifting the Nest’s personality to more of a gentle coach than a noodge with a climate-change slide show. Her model was the dashboard on the Toyota Prius hybrid car. Just as the Prius provides feedback on fuel consumption, the Nest gives owners a sense of how they’re using energy — and an incentive to save, as opposed to a guilt trip when they don’t. Now, when you set the energy to a temperature-saving level, the Nest awards you with a virtual leaf — a little icon that Nest hopes you will cherish. It’s like a DIY carbon offset.

It learns, yet also assists you in saving energy, and thus money, but it does it in a way that isn’t overbearing. That’s really the right approach, and I personally can’t wait to see one of these things in action.

Beluga revisited

It’s been a few months and it’s time to give Technicalko.com a reboot. With that, it’s about time to update my last post regarding Beluga.

Much has happened since May. I was a big proponent of Beluga at the time, but since being purchased by Facebook, they have completely stopped updating the app and for all it seems, they’ve stopped development altogether. Facebook has released Facebook Messenger, a completely separate app for iOS which, shockingly, looks exactly like Beluga.

It’s sad to see this happen, but then again, we do have other options. GroupMe has grown quite a bit in popularity, though its buggy browser interface and 160 character limit (really GroupMe? 160 character limit?? Really??) have been a bit of a turnoff. So instead, I have turned most recently to Apple’s new iMessage app. It works great… just as long as everyone you text has an iPhone running iOS 5. In my case, many of the people I regularly text do have iOS 5, so it will do for now.

But if I really want a true multiplatform option that “just works”, what’s the best option? I simply don’t trust Facebook, and Beluga’s beautiful simplicity is slowly fading away.

Moving At The Speed Of Change

The other night I was cycling around lovely Lake Nokomis when I nearly got into what could have been nasty accident simply because someone wasn’t paying attention.  At Nokomis, they have separate paved trails around the likes, one for walkers and runners and another for people riding bicycles, the whole point being that the traffic for each is such that separate paths are necessary for proper safety.  It’s a great idea, you just have to get people to follow it.  Such was not the case the other night when I was cycling down the bike path and a family of six was walking towards me.   As I approached them, a couple young girls in the family were distracted by a loud airliner flying low overhead and didn’t see me coming at them at almost 20 mph.  Even though I was riding on the very edge of the path, I still passed within a foot of the young girls who were simply walking along, oblivious to their surroundings, on the bike path.

It’s easy to get distracted and not see what’s coming.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t have lapses myself.  Everyday we witness those (our ourselves) who simply aren’t paying attention to their surroundings and ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you’re going 2 mph or 200 because you could end up in a big crash either way.  The short version is to simply call it “change”.   No matter what we do, change is occurring all around us.  Sometimes it may be very slow, virtually imperceptible to the human mind over a lifetime, such as evolution.  Or it could happen very, very quickly.   In business this is no different: the change itself is inevitable, but our reaction or plan for change is what can often mean the critical difference between success and failure.

One of the hottest industries of the past few years is the mobile phone industry, specifically with regards to smartphones and their emergence as a large segment in the mobile device industry.  While smartphones weren’t invented in 2007, the introduction of the iPhone in January, 2007 had more to do with shaping the smartphone landscape today than almost anything else.  Back in early 2007, smartphones were very different than they are today.  The most popular models ran Palm OS, Windows Mobile 5, Blackberry OS and Symbian.  Blackberry had been around for a while, but they were really coming into their own with their new camera sensors built-in to the Blackberry along with a calendar and contact support and web browser.  The Blackberry always had fast and secure email, but now it was a full-fledged smartphone.  Due to the super secure, lightening fast, don’t-have-to-think-about-it email built in to the Blackberry, it was quickly becoming a favorite in the business market and to a much lesser extent, the consumer market.  This would be a time of tremendous growth for Research In Motion, yet also the moment when they most needed to innovate and realize change.

The writing was on the wall.  Whether you bought an iPhone or not, you couldn’t deny its appeal:  sleek and simple design, easy to navigate, big touch screen, geared for average users.  This was something new, something not seen before from any other company.  Even at the exorbitant price of $499 (or even $599 for the 8GB model!) and despite the fact it was a 2G phone (many phones were packing faster 3G radios at that time, albeit at the cost of shortened battery life), it was still an instant success.  Apple had brought a massive wave of change to the industry before they sold a single unit and regardless of whether they actually succeeded themselves.  Their message of beautiful simplicity, an approachable user interface and consumer centric design was powerful.  The only thing standing in their way was the actual execution of the idea and getting the price down from their original stratospheric levels.

We could go on and on about the minutiae of what happened in the years to follow the iPhone’s original announcement, but suffice to say, here in 2011 the landscape is radically different than it was in 2007.  Before the second half of 2007 Apple hadn’t sold a single handset.  Now in 2011 Apple is the most profitable mobile phone company in the world, the iPhone is the most popular smartphone in the world, smartphones are officially mainstream consumer devices and we’re witnessing the repercussions of the companies who failed to pay attention and realize the rapid change that Apple ushered in.

After bringing us some of the first popular smartphones with the Treo back in 2002 (building on the success of the Palm Pilots and Handspring Visors before that), Palm quickly realized that neither Palm OS nor Windows Mobile could compete as a new, modern smartphone OS.  But modern smartphone operating systems don’t exactly grow on trees.  With a new infusion of capital and led by their visionary Jon Rubinstein (one of the co-creators of the original iPod at Apple), they created webOS and the Palm Pre.  However due to their late start, the Pre debuted a full two years after the original iPhone.  The exclusivity to Sprint wireless also hindered their adoption (debuting a device exclusively on the third largest carrier in the US probably wasn’t the best strategy), and in 2010 Palm was bought by HP.  WebOS was commonly thought of as a truly capable modern mobile operating system that truly had the chops to go head-to-head with Apple’s iOS, but what Palm really lacked was great hardware.  So teaming up with the world’s leading PC manufacturer should be a win-win, right?  Sadly, that didn’t happen.  After HP promised to double down on webOS, they squandered many opportunities and released a half-baked tablet called the TouchPad that seemed to have great potential but didn’t offer enough compelling reasons for consumers.  Now on August 18th, 2011 HP has announced their intentions to jettison their personal devices and sell-off or spin-off their PC business.  Could this be the end of Palm, the Pre, the TouchPad and webOS?

Due to having a strong market share amongst OEMs, Microsoft was in a strong position as they licensed Windows Mobile to industry heavyweights such as Samsung and Motorola.  To Apple, Windows Mobile exemplified everything that was wrong with smartphones before the iPhone: very technical, lots of menus and submenus, stylus input, geared exclusively towards business and very unapproachable to the average consumer.  Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer didn’t seem to think the iPhone as much of a threat, yet as their market share took a rapid decline over the next few years, Ballmer finally realized that Windows Mobile 6 was not only not what consumers wanted, but it wasn’t what business users wanted either.  Microsoft went back to the drawing board and finally created a truly modern smartphone OS in Windows Phone 7 (taking some cues from OS design elements from their Zune music player.  Like Palm, it took Microsoft some time to get Windows Phone 7 phones to market (even for Microsoft, modern mobile operating systems don’t grow on trees either!).  Through their licensees they finally launched in late 2010 but have yet to reach significant adoption or consumer acceptance in less than a year.  Shareholders continue to be worried about the direction and leadership at Microsoft.

Nokia was also in a position of strength in 2007 as the worlds leading mobile phone manufacturer.  They leveraged their Symbian OS for their smartphones and while they were extremely dominant around the world, Symbian-based smartphones never quite took off in the US.  While Nokia put tremendous resources to the Symbian ecosystem, the OS itself was never quite powerful enough to compete with the modern smartphone operating systems of today.  It was essentially an advance feature-phone operating system that Nokia kept refining and adding more features.  Unfortunately, just like lipstick on pig, you can’t deny what’s really underneath all that glitter and Nokia’s advanced hardware design couldn’t make up for the shortcomings of Symbian.  With Nokia and Symbian market share plummeting (along with their profits), Nokia replaced their CEO with former Microsoft Business Division President, Stephen Elop in September, 2010.  Elop, with his famous “burning platform” memo, promptly turned the direction of the ship around, declared Symbian dead, and formed a groundbreaking partnership with Microsoft to become a featured hardware partner (though not an exclusive partner) for Windows Phone 7 devices.  Because of Nokia’s traditional strength in hardware and weakness in software, this partnership could ultimately bear much fruit, but as of yet, no Nokia-Microsoft devices have been released and Nokia’s market share continues to drop in the meantime.

Google became an unexpected player in the mobile business when they acquired the small Android Inc. in 2005.  While the new smartphone operating system was originally patterned after the Blackberry and Windows Mobile OS, it changed dramatically and altered course shortly after the iPhone was unveiled in 2007.  They quickly realized that the traditional smartphone user interface was not the template to pattern a new operating system after.  Through extensive financial support of Google, Android has grown and evolved to become the dominant smartphone OS today, largely due to their lighter restrictions, open-source nature (allowing great customization by carriers and manufacturers), and because they’re essentially giving the operating system away for free.  While Android Inc. operates as a subsidiary of Google and their smartphone operating system has seen incredible adoption, the fact remains whether Android Inc. is actually profitable as a business.  While some estimates have Android bringing Google $6-$10 per user, per year in search revenue, how certain can you be that they would not realize this revenue from competing platforms without incurring all of the development costs that go along with a modern operating system that you’re giving away for free?  Combine that with Android’s recent litigation over patents and use of Java, and it remains to be seen if Android, in its current form and business plan, is a wise investment for Google.  Google makes money off of search.  Does Android really bring more people to search than they would if they were using an alternate non-Android device?

With all that has changed in the industry, it’s amazing to see how little Research In Motion has changed.   From 2002:

Blackberry 5810
released 2002

To now in 2011:

Blackberry 9930
released 2011

Now in nine years of research, development, and technological advances, how far has RIM really come?  Besides adding a color touch screen and a better browser, how different are these phones really?  While RIM also works on keyboard-less versions of their smartphones (Storm, etc.), their sales have paled in comparison to the traditional Blackberry layout of full keyboard, short widescreen display.  Does this really look like the phone of the future to you by a company that prides itself on innovation?

The point is that change is not only inevitable, it’s constant.  Some companies create and drive change, some react quickly to it, and yet others play catch-up only after they’re absolutely sure it’s a safe bet.  But if you’re not willing to change with the times, to pay attention to your surroundings and be agile enough to see what’s coming ahead, then you must also be prepared to get off the bike path and into the slow lane for walkers.

Wayne Gretzky once said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is.  A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”  Is your company playing to where the puck is going to be?