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Archive for July, 2009

Microhoo Gets its Parts in All the Right Places

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 29, 2009

The Microhoo deal looks good to me because the parts are in the right places.  In other words, the deal maximizes the strengths of each of the two players.  Microsoft is essentially going to be providing technology in the form of the Bing search engine and the Ad Center advertising engine.  Yahoo will provide the traffic.

What does this mean for these two companies and for Google?  Techcrunch has a good transcription of Carol Bartz and Steve Ballmer going over it.  The companies moved away from any big up front payments and have focused on ongoing revenue.  I’m sure that’s a good thing for Bartz, who is probably trying to put as solid a foundation as she can under Yahoo’s revenue. 

These articles all seem to provide a lot less detail about how Microsoft will quantify benefits, however.  I have been feeling for some time that it might be a good plan for Microsoft to divest its consumer web properties to Yahoo.  Unfortunately, Yahoo is in a lousy position to pay up.  In fact, they’re actually planning to move expenses in the form of engineers off their books and onto Microsoft’s.

The deal does, however, give Microsoft a huge shot in the arm in terms of Search share.  It leaves Microsoft and Google neatly splitting most of the remaining search share, although Google continues to have to Lion’s Share of search (about 65%).  In exchange, Microsoft will pay Yahoo a whopping 88% of the search revenue in so-called Traffic Acquisition Costs.  At least they’re simply giving up the incoming revenue rather than paying cash sweeteners.  And, the deal is for 10 years, plenty long enough to cover the tenures of Ms Bartz and Mr Ballmer.

Despite the long term of the deal, the companies have budgeted 2 years of transition just to get it all operating.  That’s a typical Microsoft development timeframe, but it certainly does not reflect living in “Internet Years.”  Hopefully that’s a conservative estimate they can beat.  If it takes 2 years to get this thing up and running there’s no telling what kind of moving target Google will be able to put up between now and then.

All in all, it seems a reasonable deal.  MSFT gets to continuing trying to steal share from GOOG with a big uptick from this deal alone.  They’ll be fighting a guerilla war from here on out.  YHOO gets an immediate revenue boost and some significant Opex relief, making their numbers look better.   There’s nothing too earth shattering here, no big acquisition, and no silver bullet against Google, but it is a credible effort.  Google, meanwhile, is going to find it harder and harder to continue to steal share.  They have regressed to the mean and will now grow at the overall rate of the market, because they are the mean with so much share.  The implication is that they need a new growth engine, and until they get one, they will need to focus on profitability through expense controls. 

As I wrote some time ago, their anti-gravity ray has failed and they are now earthbound.  The same could be said of Yahoo’s share price.  It’s a great pity for shareholders that management didn’t take that big juicy merger offer made lo these many months ago.  In the end, said management got tossed and Yahoo shareholders got a much worse deal.  OTOH, MSFT shareholders are getting most of the value at a much more reasonable price.

Seth Godin writes an interesting post about win, place, or show.  Microhoo is definitely about showing.  They’re a long ways from figuring out how to win.  Larry Dignan is a lot less kind.  He says they’re set up to be the new AOL.

What do you think?

Posted in Marketing, Partnering, strategy | 2 Comments »

Fred’s Got it Wrong About the Lowest Common Denominator

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 21, 2009

Caught VC Fred Wilson’s post today about the importance of not ignoring the lowest common denominator.  In this case he’s talking about SMS and Twitter.  Simeon Simeonov concurs, and its easy to agree with this approach, but let me be a dissenting voice on this kind of strategy.

It’s tempting, oh so tempting, to want to pull in the lowest common denominator.  It’s the theory of getting a few percent of an incredibly large market.  Absent real information, you may as well swing for the big market fence, even though the lights on the stadium are turned off, it’s pitch black, and you have no idea how far out there that fence may be.

Sometimes this strategy works, but most of the time it doesn’t.  Why?  Because the early adopters generally aren’t on the lowest common denominator.  They don’t care about it.  Throughout the years, the winning strategy has been to build something for next year’s highest common denominator.  That’s right.  Build software that doesn’t even work very well on what we have today, trusting that by the time you need a big market to be there, you would have created the perfect product for it.  Go ahead.  Use too much memory.  Use too much cpu.  Use graphics that won’t render on the cheap cards.  It doesn’t matter.  The early adopters already have the more powerful machines, and by the time you have crossed the chasm, everyone else will too.  The origjnal Macs barely ran at all as did the original Windows PC’s.  You see this pattern over and over in the technology adoption cycle.

Fred is talking about Twitter and SMS in his post.  He admits probably less than 15% of Twitter posts use SMS.  What kinds of handsets do you think the vast majority of real live (not the ones who signed up and went away, which may be 2/3’s of the Twitter audience) Twitter enthusiasts have?  Motorola Razors that need SMS?  Or smartphones of one kind or another like the iPhone that don’t? 

His best example is how easy it is to sign up for Twitter with SMS.  That’s great when the Twitterati is at a cocktail party and a bunch of buds are gathered around to see the wonders.  They can be signed up instantly no matter what phone they have (though I don’t ever remember seeing anyone do this even in Silicon Valley, but hey, it’s a good anecdote).  But what are the chances they actually matter?  What are the chances they use the service?  This is resource put into lowering the friction to look, but not to adopt.  As I’ve written before, this is Twitter’s biggest problem.  They did a great job lowering the friction of trial, but the friction of extracting value is still way to high.

Twitter is showing in spades that the problem for a startup is not just to get noticed and tried, it is also to do something so insanely great that people stick to it and care.  As Scoble says (and he refers to Twitter), all the PR hype in the world isn’t enough to build your business.  That’s not to say a lot of people don’t care about Twitter (I’m one of them, BTW), but getting people to care is hard.  It’s a never ending process.  It is not based on balance, diversification, or lowest common denominators.  It is based on focus and value creation.

The Mobile Web is incredibly accessible, but there is growing evidence that it lacks usability and value creation in a major way.  Sarah Perez writes that the success rate for performing various tasks there is only 59% versus 80% on the PC.  Her post is appropos of the common denominator:

Surfing the web with your hot pink Razr’s built-in browser is an experience that leaves a lot to be desired.

It is, in fact, the rise of the smartphone that has made the mobile web such a popular destination on both consumer devices and those designed for business use, like the Blackberry.

Successful apps aimed higher.  They aimed for the Smartphones and the better user experience they provide.

Isn’t it interesting to note how often the more successful and happy Twitter users have to augment Twitter with external clients?  The Tweetdecks of the world?  What if the effort expended around adding SMS support to Twitter had gone to something sexier?  Facilitating real conversations or doing any one of the myriad of things that people turn to these clients to do?

This issue of lowest common denominators is related to diversification, focus, and military strategy.  It comes up in so many ways that are related.  Seth Godin writes constantly about the need to really find your focus carefully and not succumb to too broad a spread.  Mike Speiser on GigaOm writes a great post on how diversification leads to mediocrity.  And military strategists have been avoiding the lowest common denominator for years.  They try to focus strength at a weakpoint, create a breakthrough, and expand that breakthrough to win the battle.

Startups are weak organisms.  Most of the time they can’t afford to chase the lowest common denominator.  There is opportunity cost there that can be fatal.  It is the opportunity cost of failing to diversify, failing to do something really different, and failing to grab your audience in a way that convinces them they just can’t get what you have anywhere else.

Posted in strategy, venture | 4 Comments »

Microsoft Has Started the Clock Ticking on Web Office Apps

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 14, 2009

By now, you’ve heard Microsoft Office 2010 will include web versions of the Office apps.  Some speculated that Monday’s announcement by Microsoft was what led Google to upstage them with the ChromeOS announcement.  But did ChromeOS really upstage Microsoft, and what will be the impact of a thin client MS Office?

Having been a General in the Office Wars of the 80’s and early 90’s, I can tell you it is about to get ugly for the upstarts and their Webby Office Wannabes.  Zoho, Google Apps, et al have not yet achieved sufficient traction to be anywhere near critical mass players.  They’re not even as far along as the long line of players (including my own Borland with Quattro Pro) that Microsoft dispatched the first time around.  Guys, fair warning: this is the kind of down and dirty competitive fighting that Microsoft does extremely well.  Your days are numbered or at least your growth is capped unless you can find a way around the Redmond Horde, and a lot of folks have tried before you with a lot of resources in the form of dollars and IQ points.

Microsoft will be fighting from their competitive strength.  They own the Office market.  Wannabes have so far failed to even match Office functionality, have many serious incompatibilities (leading to adoption barriers), and have failed to introduce much in the way of innovations short of running in a browser.  Microsoft will shortly eliminate that point of differentiation and at the same time they’ll be adding a whole raft of juicy looking new functionality.  You already weren’t caught up to them on functionality and the bar is about to go higher.  This feature war game is something Microsoft can play all day long, holding your heads underwater until you’re just tired of it.  Even if you one up them on some apps, they have a whole suite and the power of inertia.  Whatever you build, they will deliver their own version of it very shortly thereafter.  It’s an arms race where they bury you much the way Reagan did the old Soviet Union.

The best news is that it’s all good for customers.  It’s all good for us.  At least for as long as it lasts.

This is Microsoft as we haven’t seen them in years.  They are only at their best when they get their backs against the wall.  Bing showed up after years and years of failure against Google and even Yahoo.  Now we’re getting Office 2010.  Real new functionality of interest has been lacking for an extremely long time.  Office 2010 is blowing out all sorts of cool stuff: it runs in a browser, lots of new visual coolness (take that Apple!), and lots of new collaborative functions.  Heck even Scoble is excited.  As he points out, those that declared MS Office dead four years ago turn out to have been very wrong.

So keep it up competitors.  This is good stuff.  You bring out the best in Microsoft.  We know you’re likely to fall on your swords (or theirs) doing it, but it is a valuable service.  Complacent monopolies are a bad thing.  And guess what?  You do have a chance in the war.  It ain’t over and the fat lady hasn’t sung.  But you had sure better get your acts together in a hurry because the sleeping grizzly bear is wide awake and she’s pissed you’re in her territory.

Posted in business, cloud, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

This Twitter Post a Long Time in Coming

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2009

I’ve been collecting Twitter stories in my blog reader for several weeks.  There are gillions of them and they’re frankly clogging things up.  But I wanted to be able to go back, read them all in a sitting, and try to get some gestalt back about Twitter.  This is a long post because Twitter is a complex phenomenon, and can’t be understood in 140 character snippets.  Before we get any further, let me say that I use Twitter, and I like Twitter, but there is a lot more going on with Twitter than it seems, and that bears thinking about.

As is often the case, a lot of Twitter is about marketing and human behavior.  Deep-rooted behavior that creates strong forces that propel Twitter forward.  For a long time I have sensed those forces, but couldn’t quite put them into words. 

Probably my closest attempt was a feeling that largely what Twitter has done is to eliminate all the friction.  It is the most amazingly frictionless Social Media the world has yet seen.  Consider some of the many ways in which Twitter has eliminated friction:

–   It’s trivial to join, of course.  But having joined, there is an absolute minimum amount of effort required to “prepare your nest.”  MySpace requires quite a lot of effort.  Facebook took less, and one could argue that is a big advantage for Facebook.

–   There is no business model to get in the way.  There are no ads and no fees to keep up with.  There is spam, but so far it is easily ignored. 

–   You are left alone.  You can completely ignore Twitter, or participate completely sporadically.  You are not bombarded with messages asking you to do various things.  At best, you have messages telling you someone followed you, which are good news messages you can choose to ignore.  Once in a Blue Moon, you may get a direct message on Twitter, but you can ignore that pretty painlessly too. 

–  You don’t have to be William Shakespeare to contribute.   People alternately complain about the limitations of only being able to post 140 characters and the brilliance of forcing people to write poetry to get their point across.  It’s all very Zen.  Yet there is a simpler explanation.  If I am only writing 140 characters, how badly can I screw things up?  If I only have to get on stage and utter one line, I can get through it.  Moreover, it is socially acceptible on Twitter to write the most pedestrian of drivel.  You don’t have to be profound.  Just tell which fast food you ate for lunch.  Even if I can’t possibly write a blog post, I can do this.  I can Tweet!  Hence Fred Wilson calls it, “Blogging in less than a minute.”

–  You can make friends.  It’s easy.  Just go follow people.  Mostly they follow you back.  If you try even a little bit hard to accumulate followers, you can get quite a few.  Don’t know who to follow?  Simple, go find some popular person and just follow everyone they follow.  This works.  I’ve seen it many times.  Twitter will even suggest who to follow (a tactic some argue discourages a vibrant community).  There are endless other ways to game Twitter and get a zillion followers.   It’s much easier than SEO or the kinds of things you have to do to get a following for a blog.  It’s much easier than friending on Facebook.  Note:  I have studiously avoided these games to see what happens if you wait for the world to come to you and because I don’t value followers who follow me just because I followed them first.  I want followers who follow me because they like what I have to say or because I like what they have to say.

–  It meshes extremely well with the Mobile Web.  As a result, it has also become an awesome way to quietly pass notes in class, even at poker games.

–  For certain personality types, Twitter is positively addictive.  It is a cult to the extent that Twitter was recommended for Nobel Peace Price.  OK, I’m no Twitter hater, but come onthat’s just ridiculousTechcrunch is closer when they say the cycle for Twitter is curiousity followed either by abandonment or addiction.  The middle ground is missing there.

They got a lot right!  So where is the downside in all that?  

Extracting value.  There is friction around extracting value from Twitter.  It’s easy to start Twitter, but it is hard to continue because of the friction in extracting value.

Before we talk about that friction, we have to ask a fair question:  “Is there real value in Twitter?”

Once upon a time, there was a company that many in Silicon Valley were hot about.  It had top drawer VC’s, and it seemed that everywhere I went, I saw this software running on computers.  It was called PointCast, and it was dead sexy.  It had a technology hook called “Push Technology.”  It had that online webby connectedness.  It had an advertising model.  All this in 1997.  I had a chance to interview to be their VP Of Engineering, but I found the whole value proposition to be troubling.  You see, what PointCast did was to display advertising on a screensaver.  Fascinating to look at.  People love a cool screen saver.  And this one gave news and all sorts of other information interspersed with ads.  But what troubled me is that I could get all that from the Internet whenever I wanted it, and PointCast only delivered it up when I wasn’t using the computer, which triggered the screensaver.

Hello?  Ads served precisely whenever someone wasn’t using the computer?  Am I the only one who thought this was a bit silly?

Well, to make that long detour shorter, they got a $450M offer from Rupert Murdoch, which was a huge valuation at the time, they turned it down, and then the company essentially disappeared about a year later.  I guess there were others who thought it was a bit silly after all.

Is Twitter another PointCast?  Sexy at the moment, but in the end, offering no value, and hence doomed when the hype wears off?

Some feel that way, but I don’t think so.  I have personally gotten real value from Twitter despite that friction.  Twitter is an incredible newswire and real time search.  Remember the old teletypes constantly churning out news?  Remember the old paper ticker tapes for the stock market?  Twitter is all that and a lot more.  It is the fastest way to know a little bit (140 characters, remember!) about anything, and especially brand new things.  Any service that lets you find news you can’t get anywhere else is fundamentally valuable.

If I were at Twitter, I would be focused on increasing the value delivered and reducing the friction around getting that value.  As we crest the growth curve, all those people defecting are going to be problematic.  It will get increasingly expensive to bring enough new participants to offset that churn.  I’m still pondering exactly what I would do, so that will be the subject of other posts, but that would be my top priority.  Adoption friction is gone.  No need to focus further there.  It’s time to focus on reducing Value Extraction Friction.

What, then, is the “Value Extraction Friction” that Twitter faces?

–  People don’t know what Twitter is.  It’s blind men describing an elephant so far.  It is a Rohrshach.  Every writer has a different take.  Like the infamous Supreme Court quote about porn, we don’t know what Twitter is, but we’re sure if you experience it, you will recognize it, and like it.  That is a sure tip off to Value Friction.  There is no good elevator pitch for the value that everyone immediately groks and shares.   The whole microblogging thing doesn’t really tell the story of what Twitter is.  You might get me to try it by calling it “Blogging in less than a minute”, but it won’t take me long to decide, “No, not really.”

–  If you do the obvious thing and latch on to a ton of followers very easily, the signal to noise ratio on Twitter is lousy.  The more followers you have, and having a lot seems to be the thing, the less likely you are to read more than a small fraction of their Tweets.  Popular Twitterati with tens of thousands of follows are basically absentees.  When seeking followers, be careful what you wish for and clear about what you want to get out of Twitter.  OTOH, even celebrities with tons of followers sometimes hear amazing things about themselves first on Twitter.

–  You have to use search to cut through the noise.  Search invalidates the follower aspect of Twitter, though.  Plus search makes you think about what to search for.  It’s hard to search for news by defintion.  If you know what to search for, you already heard about it and want to learn more.

–  Twitter is lousy for conversations.  Admit it.  Without some external app, conversations on Twitter are disjointed and confusing.  There’s no way to stitch a conversation together manually.  The more followers you have, and the more the conversation involves people you don’t follow, the harder it gets.  Twitter is largely a “talk but don’t listen” medium.  Hmmm.  That is strikingly Old School when you think about it.

–  Despite some people feeling Twitter and its Retweets can be a big source of traffic for your blog or other properties, it is no silver bullet.  But it certainly helps.  Perhaps it is more a source of discovery than an ongoing source of traffic.  When it does drive traffic, Twitter traffic is certainly inconsistent.

–  Increasingly, thought leaders are saying though leaders shouldn’t spend their time on Twitter.  Twitter is where the unwashed go to discover what the thought leaders are saying.  It isn’t where thought leaders go to learn anything.  Just ask Robert Scoble or Jeremiah Owyang.  Or Nicholas Carr who says Twitter is turning the mighty into peasants.  

–  Twitter is wide open.  There is no privacy.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  It reduces friction right up until you need to talk about something privately, and then it forces you to go elsewhere.  As Scoble puts it, he craves intimacy at times.  It causes some to actually discourage Tweeting, particularly in the PR space.

–  As the newness wears off, Twitter is increasingly going to be gamed by the spammers.  A huge part of Google’s value is they regularly win this arms race.  It isn’t clear that Twitter has even started to build any arms yet.

–  Twitter is largely about reaching and hearing the Social Media Geeks and Early Adopters.  It still hasn’t crossed the chasm.

Right now, Twitter is stuck in what Seth Godin calls the “Fan Chasm.”  As he puts it:

There are very few products, services or organizations that are simultaneously easily approachable and quite deep. That’s an opportunity for you if you can figure out how to be both, but choosing just one is a more likely scenario. So, which are you?

Twitter is easily approachable, and not at all deep.  That’s not the end of the world.  Twitter has gone far on this much.  But if they can figure out how to do both, or if their ecosystem figures it out for them, then they’ll be the dominant social medium on the web.

Related Twittiography

Some of the more interesting posts on Twitter that accumulated but were not linked above that can now be marked off:

Umair Haque on Twitter via Dion Hinchcliffe:  Haque is one of the Digerati, often challenging others with controversial insights.  I think his post largely points to the frictionlessness of Twitter as I have, but without identifying the problem of Value Extraction Friction.  As I have decried many times elsewhere, it is typically Western, requiring black and white judgements with his 10  <this great Twitter thing> beats <this conventional wisdom>.  He would’ve done better to identify the underlying friction theme and recognize nothing was beating anything.  Rather, it was being given away.

Om Malik on Twitter Hate:  There are no end of Twitter Hate stories.  The statistics on people joining and never using/leaving Twitter are horrendous.  This is simply a reflection of the high Value Friction.  If getting Value was easy for everyone, they would stay.  The low adoption friction means Om is right.  Twitter will bounce back and forth between Love (adoption) and Hate (value).

Brian Solis on Twitter being a broadcast, not a conversational platform.

Om Malik on how most Twitter users are strikingly silent.

Posted in Marketing, strategy, user interface, Web 2.0 | 3 Comments »

Google Chrome OS is an Obvious Response to Bing

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2009

Bing has been gaining share in the search market for Microsoft.  So what does Google do?  Announce a full frontal assault on the Microsoft OS dominion, of course.  Never mind that it is a totally uninspired sort of response with no details about anything particularly compelling,  or that a Chrome-based OS for netbooks is neither big news nor a “nuclear bomb” on Microsoft.  Never mind that Android hasn’t seemed to go much of anywhere relative to iPhone, that times are tough, or that the market increasingly expects Google to be more profitable.  No folks, we’re going to open up yet another front on the war, spend more money, yada, yada.

Think what you will about the announcement.  It surely did set the blogosphere on fire.  It’s always fun to pile on the market leader.  We’re genetically wired to like doing that.  And it will be a good thing for consumers: competition always is.  But it isn’t the end of Microsoft or more than a temporary PR inconvenience.  It may even be a positive for Microsoft, seriously loosening the anti-trust handcuffs if Google makes much progress.  If nothing else, we haven’t seen anything but talk yet to even know if we like this thing.  We’ll see what “aggressively re-thinking the OS in light of the web really means.”  Android was a bust in terms of such rethinking for a mobile OS.  Hopefully the desktop OS will do better.  Meanwhile we are left with only questions, so many questions.  Folks, it’s a PR strategy not a product strategy: any product strategy is yet to be disclosed.  It is intended to generate questions because that’s what keeps the PR going!

And then there is the small issue of apps.  Of course Google will spin that the Internet is the only app you need.  Mike Arrington totally agrees with that perspective with his “patting himself on the back” post.  We’ve seen that movie before long ago in a galaxy far away.  Netscape tried it.  It didn’t work.  The iPhone has clearly shown that the Internet is a wonderful “built in app”, but that a vibrant third party app ecosystem is absolutely critical in addition to the Internet.  BTW, if it does seem to be working, GooglePads (netbooks with Chrome) and CrunchPads can be toast in short order with Apple simply stepping in with their own device, and MSFT will wind up just cutting XP prices for such devices in response.  After all, they survived the Linux assault in fine form, and that was far more innovative than anything we’ve yet heard about the Chrome OS.  Absent some real innovation (which I have to admit Google may still produce, and folks like my EI compatriot Phil Wainewright are confident are there), that’s check and checkmate.  Game over.

These are not the droids you’re looking for.  Move on.

PS  Congrats to Om Malik for being the only A-Lister I have read so far who called BS on this announcement instead of just breathlessly reporting how great it is for the world and how bad it is for Microsoft.  As Om says, “ChromeOS is a scramble to say nothing.”  And RE Apple stepping in, I do think they’ll wait until either Chrome shows real traction, or they come up with an “insanely great” user experience that others won’t be able to duplicate.  They’re already on record saying they don’t believe in Netbooks because laptops give a better experience and are about the same size.  For the record, I agree with Apple on that.

PPS  Scoble has some scoop.  Microsoft has an announcement he says will be interesting to compare to ChromeOS ready to go Monday.  Bets are that Microsoft’s announcement is either Gazelle, a browser-based lightweight OS just like ChromeOS (lions and tigers, oh my!) or Office Web.  The game is afoot.  Woot!

Posted in apple, strategy | 5 Comments »

What Do Sarah Palin, Seth Godin, and Monopolies Like Microsoft or Google Have in Common?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 6, 2009

Strange bedfellows:  Sarah Palin, Seth Godin, and Monopolies ala Microsoft or Google.  What do they have in common?

Seth Godin obliquely explains what is happening to Sarah Palin and the Monopolies very eloquently in his latest blog post, “The confusion.”  In that article, Godin says:

We frequently confuse internal biochemistry (caused by habits and genetics) with external events. If we didn’t, marketing wouldn’t work nearly as well.

He goes on to suggest successful marketing goes out of its way to leverage this internal biochemistry (presumably “Brain Chemistry”):

Marketers spend billions of dollars identifying common biochemical events, and then they launch products and services with stories that align with those events. As a result, we spend money on external forces in an attempt to heal internal pain. Marketers want the equation to be, “if you buy this, everything will be all right.”

But it isn’t just marketers that should recognize behavior is governed as much by ancient hard wiring of our minds as rational thinking.  It touches us in many ways.  Which brings me to the link with Sarah Palin, Microsoft, Google, and other Monopolists.

I read Dana Oshiro’s post about how Palin resigned due to hounding by journalists shortly after reading Godin’s post and the pieces clicked into place.

People who are successful get held to an increasingly high standard of behavior.  The bar raises in direct proportion to their success.  If they are successful enough, that bar culminates in it being impossible for them to measure up.  The bar goes up even faster if the success is sudden, or seems unfair to be unfair.  Sarah Palin rocketed out of nowhere when she was selected to be John McCain’s running mate.  That move was widely seen as a stunt, with McCain having selected her because his ticket needed someone who was a “first”.  In this case, Palin was making a run at being the first female Vice President of the United States.  Monopolies are certainly seen as being unfair.  So much so that our government is charged with breaking them up.

What sort of hard wired behavior accounts for a rising bias against success? 

It’s pretty easy to understand when you think about it in terms of evolutionary forces.  We love to characterize evolution as “Survival of the Fittest”, but that is an oversimplification.  It is a proxy to success, but it is not the actual definition of the success.  More precisely, evolution is a competitive arena.  Yes, there is some notion of “fitness”, but it largely equates to survival and the ability to procreate. 

Now think about it from the standpoint of a critter participating in the competition.  You want it to be a fair fight.  If someone (or something) is unfairly taking over the competition, you will want to band together the weaker groups and slow their ascent.  You attack them if you can, any way you can, because if they get too successful, it becomes impossible to stop them.  Even in the blogosphere, there have been examples of individuals who got too successful, saw the World turn against them, and they had to fall back and contemplate what was happening.

The very successful are often extremely surprised to see the mob turn against them.  They don’t understand where the heat is coming from.  In their minds, they’re doing nothing different than what they’ve always done, and they are recieving their just rewards for having done so.  Suddenly, the World wants to punish them for being good.  Unfortunately, the Internet and the rest of Modern Media have reduced the friction so much that this flip from the positive to the negative (for all of these entities started with a lot of positives or they would never have gotten far enough to be seen as threats) can happen very suddenly and it can be very intense.

Of course the Marketers are not divorced from this.  They can sell on the negativity.  That’s what sells a lot of media, for example.  So they’re going to feed it as well.

This is real Public Relations.  Successful companies and individuals have to come to grips with what they’re going to do about the phenomenon when negativity strikes.  Sarah Palin quit.  IBM changed how they did business to continue after their consent decree.  One wonders if there aren’t tactics that should have been invoked during the meteoric rise to allow the organization to get further before the antibodies were triggered?

Posted in Marketing, strategy | 2 Comments »

Microsoft: Bad User Experience Is Cultural

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 1, 2009

I just lost an hour of work to Microsoft Word because it clears the clipboard every time you start it up fresh.  It’s been doing it for years.  I knew about it, but I simply forgot.  I was working on a blog post in WordPress, and decided I wouldn’t finish and wanted to transfer it to Word.  I often transfer posts to Word because it gives better spelling and grammar checking.   I would leave the doc on my Windows desktop at home, and finish when I returned.  An additional complication was that I had accidentally published the article prematurely, and so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone.  So I copied it to the clipboard, deleted it from WordPress so it would no longer be published, opened up a new Word document, and…  Shite.  It was lost.  Word cleared the clipboard.  I knew this as soon as I saw Word starting to come up, but there was no way to stop it at that point.

What idiot at Microsoft thought this would be a good idea?  What group of idiots let it continue for years?

I have a dim recollection that this is done for some sort of security reason.  There is a hack or exploit that is thwarted by deleting the clipboard’s contents before the app comes up.  But I don’t use any other app that has this behaviour.  Clearly there are better ways to avoid the security problems, because other apps have found them.  A search of the web will tell you everything from, “Word doesn’t do this, what are you talking about?” to “It only happens if you have Works installed” (I don’t), and on to, “Oh yeah, it’s stupid behavior, but you can install a pop up app that captures the clipboard for you so Word can’t destroy it.”

The great mystery to me is that this isn’t accidental behavior.  It isn’t some newly introduced bug that will be fixed shortly in a patch.  Microsoft thinks this is better, or at the very least, doesn’t care enough about the User Experience to do anything about it.  They have made a conscious and well-reasoned by their lights decision that Word should work this way.  So, probably a couple of times each year, I manage to lose some data because of it. 

That brings me to the cultural question on User Experience.  What sort of a culture would do this kind of thing?  More importantly, what sort of culture is needed to avoid it?

Microsoft is hugely driven by product management.  With a few notable exceptions (Anders H. and C # would be a good one), the PM’s make all the key customer facing decisions.  This dates back a long time ago to someone telling Bill Gates he desperately needed to get some business expertise into the company and not just let the geeks run it.  So he led with product management, and with Steve Ballmer, who came out of Consumer Packaged Goods product management.  Product Managers run the show there.  And that is the fabric of the culture that let’s Microsoft Word delete the clipboard (which is, after all, intended to facilitate integration between apps!), among many many other terrible user experience discussions.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Product Management is extremely valuable.  Product Managers are the only people in most organizations whose full time job it is to listen to customers.  That’s important!

However, that job is different than the job of a product designer.  To use a Hollywood movie metaphor, the Product Manager should be the Producer, not the Director and not the Screenwriter.  The PM will decide, “The market is ready for a good Western, because it has been a while.”  Then the Director and Screenwriter will put together Unforgiven.  They’ll get a very small group of fantastic actors (corresponding to the developers) like Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman.  Each group has to give the other group’s sufficient “turf” and artistic freedom to be successful.  Can you imagine it working if the Director had to micromanage Eastwood or Hackman too much?  Likewise, if the Producer got to far into the details of the movie, the Director could not succeed.

But there is a school that companies like Microsoft subscribe to that view User Experience as being a function of debits and credits.  If we make this change, will we sell any more copies of Microsoft Word?  There is a big deal on the table, and if we agree to change the product to suit them, even if it is a bad idea for others, we can close that deal today.  That problem does not affect enough users, so we don’t need to worry about it. 

That’s the language of dollars and cents as it applies to product design, according to this school of thought.

Thanks to Techmeme, I came across a nice article about Jonathan Ive, who is one of the key designers at Apple responsible for the iPhone and iPod.  Though they seem to surprise the writer, there are fantastic insights into what it takes to create a culture that delivers great user experience.  Trying to calculate user experience with debits and credits is most decidely not how it is done:

Ive was insistent that the key to Apple’s success was that it was not driven by money – a claim that may raise eyebrows amongst shareholders and customers – but by a complete focus on delivering just a few desirable and useful products.

Total focus.  Total focus on building insanely great products.

So how did the company decide what customers wanted – surely by using focus groups? “We don’t do focus groups,” he said firmly, explaining that they resulted in bland products designed not to offend anyone.

Christopher Frayling reminded us at that point of Henry Ford’s line about what his customers would have demanded if asked – “a faster horse” – and it’s surely true that the point of innovative companies is to come up with products that customers don’t yet know they need.

Focus groups and prioritized customer driven feature lists are not the answer.  They’re too tactical and do not create conceptual integrity.  The involve detailed placement of trees rather than creation of a beautiful and healthy forest.  I touched heavily on this idea recently and on how it is insidious for Enterprise Software.  But it is even more dangerous for consumer products.

But it was the physicality of design work that Jonathan Ive was keen to stress – from the Apple design workshop full of machines, throwing off a lot of noise and dust, to visits to Japanese aluminium craftsmen to learn how that material could be crafted into a laptop casing. Yes, of course he and his team use all the latest computer-aided design tools – but he also likes to knock out a physical prototype and feel the weight of it in his hand.

He told a story about how, as a boy, he’d taken apart an old-fashioned alarm clock, and inside the spare outer casing found a mass of workings, “an entire watch factory”.

I read that as the designers are steeped in personal contact and use with the product.  Personally, I just can’t take a job working on a product unless I relate to it.  I’m an engineer, but a creator of things moreso.  There are lots of kinds of engineers, but the best love to create many things.  My own leisure time activities almost universally involve creating things–blogs, web sites, computer controlled machine tools, music, and a number of other things.  The tactility and physicality of design that Ive talks about reflects an aesthetic sense.  It’s less engineer and more like an architect (one who creates buildings, not code) in terms of the feel.

Until you have a culture with those sorts of values, and that empowers those sorts of people, your products will lack great user experience.  It doesn’t mean you can’t succeed, but don’t kid yourself that your success will be built on great user experience.  It will come from some other source.

Years ago I had a discussion with a Microsoft Product Manager who had come to a company I worked at about this.  He wanted to establish the same culture.  I described for him what I am describing here.   He responded, “Bob, you’re a great product designer, but as a company, we can’t count on being able to find enough Bobs.  So we need to use product managers instead.” 

It is much easier to use product managers to create a repeatable process.  After all, there is much less passion involved.  For many markets, it may not be worth Apple-style design.  People often wonder for Enteprise software whether it matters, for example.  But I don’t buy my PM friend’s argument.  Talent of all kinds is always scarce.  A decision to eschew finding talent for a repeatable process creates mediocrity.

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Zoli Erdos always has a humorous but wise take on the issues he blogs about.

Talk about a bad user experience:  Microsoft ad has woman vomiting.  These things would never see the light of day if the user experience cops were effective.  Valuing user experience has to be built in to the culture or it doesn’t happen.

Maybe its just Evolutionary Hardwiring that makes it so easy to get upset with Microsoft.

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