Archives for July 2012

Applause and You

There is little else more seductive than the applause of your peers.

To be looked upon with a mixture of awe, reverence, admiration and perhaps even jealousy.

As social creatures our sense of identity depends a lot on what others think of us.

Left unchecked it turns into a trap, a little ruse of our ego to deceive us.

Any recognition is good in principle, but to be drunk on it and forget what brought us here is an error.

Be wary of applause, as you would be of a boisterous drunkard who might go off at anytime. Keep your distance.

Your accomplishments driven by effort and diligence is beautiful on its own.

The adoration of half-wits is a blot upon your spirit. Do not yield.

Five Reasons Why Enterprises Stumble at Innovation

Innovation

In an earlier post we covered social factors that lead to acceptance of failure in startups, reading it would help get some context. Writing that post gave me another perspective for why enterprises fail at innovation, I have written a few posts around this topic. For example in an old post replace collaboration with innovation and you will find views there still hold.

Conclusion from earlier failure in startups posts was that stance of accepting failure as possibility is key for new ideas and businesses be created. Which dovetails, in my view, about why large enterprises so often stumble at innovation, or don’t innovate at the level they should, especially considering the resources they have. Here are my five reasons.

Decide and Move Forward

The positive aspect of being risk averse is being thorough in planning and execution. The negative aspect is when all and sundry want to make sure fingers will not point at them when things go wrong. One does not need to play russian roulette with new ideas but can definitely exercise judgement in the interests of moving forward.

Blind Adherence to Processes

Processes that make sure repeatability actively prevent people from thinking about the case on hand. The letter of the processes takes front-seat, the spirit goes quietly slinking away. What I am responsible for becomes more important than doing what is right for the organization.

Assumptions of Invariant Context

Enterprises plan and organize for continuity of service. One key assumption in planning is that external factors, the context in which they work, do not change. Or even if they account for contextual factors it is often viewed via old lenses and biases. This was an acceptable assumption is the industrial era. For the information age, there could be no assumption more fatal to organizations. A globalized economy does not pause to catch a nap or a breather. Everywhere people are thinking, building and moving forward faster.

Not all Gatekeepers are Visionaries

Anyone who has pushed a new initiative in an organization must know the mind-numbing conversations where every passer-by is to approve the idea. They have a fancy term for this, “building consensus”, which is a sound process in principle but seldom works as it should. The assumption that all you talk to are skilled enough to judge an idea and understand nuances is not always true. Go to any organization who don’t innovate as much as they should and you will find well-intentioned, risk averse and turf hugging people holding the organization back.

Innovation is pursuit of an unknown perfection

Of course there will and must be solid research into the idea, business models built, costs and revenue estimated & tracked etc. But at heart innovation is a venturing into the unknown. Every prototype, every conversation, every contact with a potential customer peels the layer off the next revolutionary product. Having to run an idea past a committee or make it jump through bureaucratic hoops is a quick way to snuff out every wisp of innovation.

What do you think?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Cloud Atlas, What Art Can Be

Cloud Atlas is a movie based on novel of same name by David Mitchell. Now a movie with Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Check the trailer below.

The best sort of art is not one which entertains or informs or clarifies or even celebrates. Art at its most sublime poses the big questions, leaves us with a sense of wonder and makes us grapple with the mystery of existence.

Simply wonderful to see movie makers attempt complex topics without compromise. Am watching this once its out.

Digg and Conditions that Make Failure Acceptable

Digg is dead. Digg’s failure was a chance for bloggers to speculate about Digg itself and what makes startups fail and rise up.

There were the usual condescending views on what happened to Digg. See picture below.

Failure of Digg

In case you did not get the joke, here is the actual cover published many years ago.

Failure of Digg, Original Cover

There were positive takes too, for example here is one from Sarah Lacy:

The lesson from Digg is crucial as Silicon Valley’s ecosystem has made it easier and easier to start a company. It’s that a great product is necessary but not nearly enough. Building a real company is harder, and it takes execution and leadership.

And Sarah ends the article with this:

There will be haters on this post. And that’s fine. But the people who write checks in the Valley have respect for what Digg built, whether the founders fell short or not. Smart people will always want to back these guys– as Mike Maples said on Ask a VC last week– and people like Arrington and me will root for them again.

Context of Failure

In my understanding there is a specific context in which the sentiment “failure is acceptable” occurs. This context is driven by three factors.

First, the economic drivers of society have changed from being manufacturing oriented to one driven by information and software. Software products are not typically capital intensive, besides Moore’s Law ensures more CPU power being available for less cost. So software companies are born, grow and mature at a much faster rate than those that manufacture things.

Second, most major economies are globalized, coupled with spread of internet and internet based services makes an unimaginable amount of competition possible. The key here is that location is not an impediment to build and sell software. As long as connectivity exists, any service can theoretically be served anywhere. Theoretically because there are laws around what can be sold from and to in each nation. But in principle location is not a hard barrier for digital services.

Third, increasing complexity of societies driven by change in demographics of nations, the migration from rural areas into cities, availability of cheap communication devices, affordable internet connectivity and other factors drive an inordinate rate of change and new perspectives that leave little room for certainty.

Consequence

With the above three factors influencing our context, it is easy to work out why investors and entrepreneurs take the stance that “failure is acceptable“. Basically very few have any certainty on what product or service will succeed in the marketplace. A product that succeeds in the US, does not even start in Brazil or India or China. There are no clear answers.

The option to not failing seems to be to sit tight, which certainly is no option for dreamers and builders. Besides in software related services the life-span of vetting a product is quite short. Unlike manufacturing a car where it takes a few years to build one and then test to see if it succeeds, a prototype software product can be done in as few as handful of weeks to get feedback from potential customers.

So a couple of years spent building a software product that has failed is no big deal, the experience of having executed idea still remains valuable. These lessons learnt from failure and the endurance built up in execution can be reused. The VCs and entrepreneurs have thought through these dynamics, leading to insight that failure does not kill and one can always try again.

Bottom line, execution builds competency regardless of outcome.

Is it just a fashion?

I also think, this is no ephemeral trend..this is a deeper perspective of what makes work essential to us as humans. Beyond its ability to put food on the table, work infuses meaning to many of us and without that ability to leave markers around many would be unhappy. But here I digress into philosophical territory and will have to stop I guess! What do you think? What makes failure acceptable, at least in the technology industry?

Enhanced by Zemanta

At Google, Poor Smeagol is Done, Gollum Takes Over

Before

Google DoNoEvil Smeagol

Google General Counsel Kent Walker wrote:

While collaborative [Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs)] play an important part in the overall standard setting system, and are particularly prominent in industries such as telecommunications, they are not the only source of standards. Indeed, many of the same interoperability benefits that the FTC and others have touted in the SSO context also occur when one firm publishes information about an otherwise proprietary standard and other firms then independently decide (whether by choice or of necessity) to make complementary investments to support that standard in their products. … Because proprietary or de facto standards can have just as important effects on consumer welfare, the Committee’s concern regarding the abuse of SEPs should encompass them as well.

– via AllThingsD.

What Google Actually Wants

Basically Google says, “Some features are so popular with customers, that they should be considered standards. Hence these features should be available for every manufacturer since it would otherwise harm consumers.”

Not sure if you got that? Okay, let me try again, “Since its obvious Apple has features that are loved by most, let us get those features for free so as to benefit our customers”. Btw, these are not about essential inventions which are covered under FRAND and Google is known to block sharing FRAND patents though it is legally obliged to do so via its Motorola acquisition.

Okay now, let us move to a comment by Urs Hölzle, boss of infrastructure at Google when asked about OpenCompute(a Facebook led initiative to share knowledge on building efficient DataCenters):

“Open Compute is a little bit tricky, if you can figure out how to make things work at scale and at good cost, that’s a competitive advantage. Thousands of years of engineering work has gone into the system to make it work.”

– via VentureBeat.

After

Google DoEvil Gollum

Err, did you see the disconnect there?! When it suits Google features developed by Apple should be considered a ‘standard’ so that consumers can benefit. But if its around sharing details of its own crown-jewels it acts all capitalistic.

We all know corporate sloganeering about “Open Standards”, “Do no evil” are mostly posturing to keep the gullible pleased but this double speak from Google is another order of hypocrisy. Am hoping for the thermonuclear thing that Steve Jobs had wanted for Google/Android.

Pixate – Style your iOS Apps Using CSS!

It is a truth universally held by all learned men and women that Apple’s development environment and tools suck big time. Others say XCode and iOS dev environment have grown mature lately, perhaps it is true but I can only imagine the horror it must have been! Last week I came across a effort called Pixate on Kickstarter that should alleviate some pain for iOS developers.

Pixate – Styling in iOS

To be honest XCode does a half-decent job to let you style controls. But the workflow of importing graphical assets of multiple resolutions remains convoluted, leave alone making UI respond to state changes within the application. Pixate seems to have solved this problem rather elegantly, they propose styling apps their components using CSS and their custom CSS Engine. This is awesome at couple of levels. First developers can piggy back on their knowledge of CSS from web development world and two it enables an extra level of separation between Views and how content within is actually styled.

Ancestry of Pixate

I personally do not know what exactly inspired Pixate developers to use CSS as the styling engine. Use of CSS in web development as mentioned above is well known, so that is an obvious starting point. But there are precedents in other areas too.

Take for example how XAML works in WPF and Silverlight. There too is a clean separation of control elements and the code to style them. In fact, though XAML is a proprietary language, I thought it was a well engineered technology. Of course Microsoft never quite nailed positioning for XAML leading to its poor adoption and high failure rate. I have seen projects on WPF/Silverlight being used for purposes they were never designed for, say real-time rendition of high volume graphs, that too on half a decade old hardware.

A minor detail, XAML is not just about building UIs and styling them, it was a markup for object serialization..which explains why Workflow Foundation rules/graphs could be described in XAML. Sadly it did not take off but am fond of XAML still.

Support Pixate on Kickstarter!

Without digging into the past, let me just say I love what Pixate are attempting. Driving look and feel in iOS apps via CSS-like syntax is a good thing. So I have registered myself on Kickstarter as a supporter of this project. If you are curious am going for the $99 pledge, gets me a single user dev license if the project goes through. I would highly recommend you take a look at Pixate and support them, we all win if tools surrounding iOS(they have an Android equivalent on their plans too) development get more smarter.

Update – Pixate now supports importing Adobe Photoshop Layers in Real-Time! This is awesome, check it and give it your support!

Sparrow Acquisition and Mobile App Pricing Models

Sparrow

Sparrow, the much loved email client for iOS has been acquihired by Google. Congrats to the Sparrow team. Bad news is there will be no enhancements to the Sparrow app itself. The team will work on other projects at Google.

Sparrow Acquihire Reactions

Reactions from the internet ranged from how Google might have wanted to get Sparrow’s design skill to lend a hand on a Gmail client perhaps, or wanted Sparrow like app for Android and so on.

The reaction that I liked was from Nilay Patel, he talks about how Apple should support In-App subscription pricing models for apps.

An app developer can only charge a one time price BEFORE the user has experienced the app. This price must be low enough not to scare away users, yet high enough to pay for the operations of the business. In the productivity app space, we are seeing more of the former, not the later. (a) I only paid $9.99 for Sparrow years ago and yet it has added a lot of value to my life.

Subscription pricing for apps is an important point and am surprised its not getting much support from iOS developer community.

Popular Mobile App Pricing Models

One-time payment is the second most popular mobile app pricing model. Free is obviously the first approach. The monetization strategy for free apps are i)in-app purchases for additional features ii) Advertisement supported iii) Monetize through a primary app, on say PC or elsewhere, and subsidize mobile app.

Of course am not accounting for apps that are supported by factors other than revenue. Social media apps fall under this bucket, they use our collective attention to determine our interests and use these signals to serve advertisements etc.

Why subscription pricing for mobile apps?

Most pre-iOS mobile platforms were quite lame to build professional apps on. The iOS platform and then Android, and perhaps Windows Phone, changed all that. It is possible to write games on these platforms, leave alone business apps. Most functionality like email clients, games or simple productivity tools, requires minimal server infrastructure to keep running. So its possible to build a decent mobile product by adopting an one-time pricing model for these apps. Start with 0.99 cents to whatever $$ you can charge and be done with it. Assuming the app did sufficient numbers, developers can sustain themselves and perhaps even be profitable.

Some Problems Need Processing Power!

But the one-time pricing model does not always work. Especially if there is a server component that supports the mobile app functionality, and server components are not cheap to build, monitor and maintain. Why bother with a server at all? Well, if you are doing any significant feature that involves large data processing, it has to be done on the server rather than a mobile client. Without a server component you are limited by the kind of problems you can solve. Let me reiterate

This is not about pricing models but about the class of problems you can go after sustainably.

This would be no big deal if the iPad and its Android clones had not been around. With tablets you could do much more but the pricing model constraints are a serious roadblock. AppStore pricing restrictions are artificial constraints on the tablet ecosystem.

Options for Subscription Pricing

And if you want to focus on a purely mobile app then you have few options i) Charge heavily one time, and hope you do enough volumes ii) Adopt in-app purchases for new features, might not fly because of first point, which Nilay has pointed out too iii) iii) Adopt in-app advertising, might not work for non-consumer apps because of volumes iv) Or hope you get VC funding to subsidize the whole thing and look for exit via an acquisition!

Obviously none of the above options are desirable.

Web + Mobile Combo

Before you say anything, I know a web + mobile app combination will let you out of this conundrum, since pricing model on the web-end of the equation can be controlled. Issue here is your development costs just shot up. There are two apps to design, build, test, deploy and maintain for! Let us not even get into whether the product would be relevant on a non-mobile scenario.

With subscription pricing enabled for apps, Apple can truly realize its vision of a post-PC world. Right now, developers need to straddle PC and Post-PC worlds!

Why do I care?

Why am I getting all worked up about Sparrow and in-app pricing models? Well, for CollabLayer, the first product being developed by my startup Tataatsu, we have struggled with this question a lot. While CollabLayer will be on all platforms eventually, we could have gone to market with an iPad app first. But pricing model restrictions force us to build the web-app too, which of course delays everything.

Apple, help us realize your, and our, vision of  a Post-PC world, enable in-app subscription pricing!

Enhanced by Zemanta

Google Nexus Very Shy, Shirks Unboxing

Google Nexus must be the first Android device to receive unanimously positive reviews, including Apple fans. Always good to have some competition to keep Apple on its toes. But this is just surprising, see the video below.

Google Nexus Engineering Let Down by Packaging

Clearly shows someone did not view the product as a customer would. Or the product managers and engineers who designed it went home early leaving package design to Asus?

The last mile of a marathon is the hardest

Quick thought.  So it is with building products. All the complex engineering and management challenges faced to build a good product like Nexus is hidden to the end user, what they crib about is the tape that sticks the box together.

For my own clarity, attention to detail is not just about the cool industrial engineering, the software and apps. Most important is the last mile of product management that starts from unboxing, to switching on the device to the time the device is let go off.

Nest Gets Engineering and Marketing Right

Nest-thermostat

Nest is a thermostat. A thermostat is not usually worth talking about. Nest though is worth talking about and many have in the past.

Engineering or Marketing

There are products that are engineered well but the messaging falls flat. Some products get the marketing right but engineering fails to measure up. But there are times when engineering and the messaging surrounding it come together in perfect harmony. In such rare moments, the engineer and creative person can be content at what they have accomplished.

Nest’s latest advertisement does justice to the engineering behind it. Watch it first.

Reminds me of another product messaging.

Thinking Time

Instead of listing down how both examples resonate with me, am going to try something different.

First. Which other unsexy and green utility like Nest has better marketing?

Second. How would you introduce an iconic device like the Apple iPhone that might change how people communicate?

Fire away in the comments or drop me a note..details in the contact page. I shall post my views in comments mid next week.

6 Examples Why Not All Gamification is Bad

Gamification has a bad aura surrounding it. One thinks of Gamification as being best done by Zynga and its evil time-devouring demon called FarmVille. But a recent crop(just mentioning FarmVille has infected me!) of apps have affirmed this belief that not all Gamification is bad.

What is Gamification?

Before we dig in, here is Wikipedia’s definition of Gamification

Gamification is the use of game design techniques[1], game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.

Good definition but I think we could add a little more color. Before I reveal what it is, let me share details of a few apps that have influenced my thinking.

Zite

Zite is a online magazine that lets you subscribe to news on specific topics you select. Zite is like a smart sister to the pretty Flipboard. Zite absolutely shines when it comes to the quality of articles it recommends. It does that by taking feedback on the article you read. It tackles the “how to get feedback” by asking three questions i) Do you want to see more from same site/author? ii) Did you like this post? iii) Do you want to see more articles on the topics like this article?. Between these three questions it captures a nice overview of how a user feels about the content. I did not take this mechanism seriously for a while but once I started giving it the feedback, I found quality of new articles become really really good. To summarize, Zite uses Gamification to improve quality of article recommendations.

Newsle

Newsle is a new breed of recommendation system. It does one thing, to show news articles about people you care about. It picks the list of people from your social graph and also provides means to add ad-hoc names. Imagine you could keep track of your friends, competitors to see if they get mentioned on any news articles. Newsle deserves a bigger post because they use entity recognition algorithm to solve a practical problem(how do I see news about people I care about?) cleanly. Newsle takes feedback from you on whether the person entity it has recognized in an article is the same person you care about. So, Newsle uses Gamification to improve its people recognition algorithm.

Cargobot

Cargobot is an ingenious game designed to teach programming principles. You instruct a robot to move in certain predefined set of ways to accomplish task of moving cargo boxes. I found this an absolute delight to play and even got my kid interested in instructing the robot to do things. This could a nice first step before getting kids onto bigger stuff like Lego’s Mindstorms. You play a game but the side effect is to learn programming principles. Clever use of a Gamification to teach programming.

Lift

Lift, an iOS app, is yet to be released. From the reviews I have seen its helps accomplish changes to your habits by having a virtual group of friends to motivate you. Simple app and am sure there are many like it. I really like how Lift, and similar apps, use Gamification of social interactions to influence old behavior or acquire new ones.

Contactually

Contactually is CRM for your email. It takes your email contacts and helps manage each relationship by reminding you to stay in touch with people. The reason it finds a place here is in how it make you categorize your contacts. Getting your contacts grouped by what they mean to you is a chore. But Contactually makes it into a game by asking you to bucket contacts. I found ‘bucketing’ to be more palatable than just calling it categorizing contacts. The feature would have remained they same in function and UX if it had been called categorization. Contactually have tweaked your perception of categorizing to make it more enjoyable.

ReWire

ReWire is an app to help build attention/concentration skills. Disclosure – this is a game my firm did the development for. Essentially what it does is to take a conventional audio or video signal and interrupts it and looks for action from you on whether you have recognized the interruption or not. Deceptively simple mechanics but it produces a zoned in state where your senses are tuned in. This is almost like a regular game but what makes ReWire different is that it tries to focus exclusively on the negative spaces and not the actual audio or video signal that is going on in the app. It helps you to stay mentally at one place without being distracted. Exactly the state you need to be in to solve hard problems or do meditation or any activity that needs concentration. Again good example, I think, of Gamification to improve concentration.

Summary

In all these examples the key element was to influence the user to take an action. Whether it was by making an activity into a game, or by game-like rewards for taking a specific action. This is conventionally called interaction design but I feel some of these examples go much beyond that. So here is my definition:

Gamification is the process of engineering or eliciting a certain behavior. Gamification uses a combination of interaction design techniques and understanding of human psychology to accomplish its goals.

What do you think? Does my definition capture what Gamification means to you? What other apps do you know do this better? Let me know in the comments.