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Archive for June, 2010

Android: The Long Term Bet

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 24, 2010

Fascinating news from a recent Appcelerator survey of 2700 mobile developers:

– The long term bet among these developers is Android

– Apple is a short term bet, mostly because it’s a hot platform now.

– The reason is open-ness and cross-platform portability

The really interesting thing is that a lot of Apple’s problems are self-inflicted.  They could be a lot more open and trustworthy, but they’re not acting like Switzerland

It isn’t too late for them to change, but it looks like they have a lot of trust to rebuild.  Is Jobs capable of listening?

Adobe, this is good news for you too.  Your Flash/Flex platform offers the best cross-platform compatibility out there, except that it doesn’t run on Apple’s platforms.  Follow my 7-step plan and prevail as Android comes into its own.

Posted in apple, strategy | 3 Comments »

What’s Hadoop Good For?

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 24, 2010

Hadoop, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an Open Source version of Google’s Map Reduce distributed computing algorithm.  After reading that Adobe has agreed to Open Source their Puppet modules for managing Hadoop, I got curious about what Adobe might be doing with it.  It didn’t take long on Google to find a cool Wiki page showing what a whole bunch of companies use Hadoop for.

I went in thinking (actually without too much thinking, LOL) that Hadoop implied some sort of search engine work.  I knew it was more versatile, but just hadn’t thought about it.  A quick read of the Wiki shows all sorts of companies using it, and it seems like one of the most common applications is log analysis.  The other quasi surprising thing is that it often seems to be used with relatively fewer nodes than I would have thought.  After all, it is a massively parallel algorithm.  However, it is apparently also pretty handy for 10-15 node problems.  Hence much smaller organizations and problems are benefiting.

My conclusion, if any, is that it must be a really handy toolkit for throwing together analysis of all sorts of things that take a little grid computing (that term is probably no longer popular) in an elastic Cloud world.

Cool beans!  I love the idea of scaling up a quick hadoop run to crank out a report of some kind and then scaling the servers back down so you don’t have to pay for them.  Makes sense.

Posted in cloud, grid | Leave a Comment »

Adobe: 7 Things You Should Do With Flash/Flex

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 21, 2010

Dear Adobe:

Apple has started the anti-Flash/Flex snowball rolling, and it is getting steadily bigger.  It’s a perfect storm, because they’ve got the platforms that are perfectly suited to Flash, their platforms are wildly popular, and your faithful audience desperately wants to be there.  But that’s not all.  They didn’t just prohibit Flash, they have called a lot of attention to a credible competitor: HTML5.  I know, I know.  It will be a long time before HTML5 is everything Flash is today.  It’s not even close right now, and a lot of people have conflated media delivery with Rich User Experience in ways that unfairly diminish your platform.  Get over it.  Economic pressures (aka naked greed and envy to be on these precious Apple platforms) have created a hill of growing height, and the water that is developer mindshare is rapidly flowing down that hill and away from Flash.

What can you do?

Lame ads won’t help.  Complaining about it won’t help.  Technology and innovation can help.  If you move quickly, and you have some things in your camp that buy you time (Android), you can still salvage the situation.

Here is what it takes:

1.  Absolute Single Minded Focus on Performance and Stability

People have concluded your platform is buggy and slow.  It doesn’t matter if you agree or not, the customer is always right.  When you hear McAskill at Smugmug and Adler at Scribd railing about your stuff, it’s time to move from denial to acceptance.  Their voices and those of many others are too loud and being spread too efficiently to pretend it isn’t so.  It’s past time to deal with it, in fact.  You need to embrace this problem, own it, and deliver the solution as quickly as possible.  The solutions can take many forms.  My recommendations are part of this post, and this point is more about declaring a focus both publicly and internally and owning the problem.  You don’t have to say, “We agree, our platform is slow and buggy.”  You do have to say:

“We have a great platform and our customers have told us to make it dramatically faster and more stable.  That’s our #1 priority, and here’s how we plan to do it…”

2.  Stability:  Quality + Security.  Get a Czar.

I’ll define Stability as consisting of equal parts Quality and Security.  Your customers are finding too many bugs.  There are too many public security issues.  This is happening at a time when you can ill afford it.  Get a Czar nominated and equipped to deal with this area.  Apportion your development cycles between performance and stability, give the stability cycles to the Czar and just do it.  The Czar needs to rapidly do the following:

– Identify the most egregious problems you have missed that are troubling your customers.  Look outwardly not inwardly to find them.  Fix that first tranche rapidly.

– Upgrade your automated testing so regressions are under control.

– Put in place a culture of quality that ensures that every single release is better than the last one.

– Investigate whether some of the quality issues don’t stem from education issues.  If customers are approaching it wrong, or don’t know how things work, they may be seeing behavior that is exactly what’s expected, but that looks to them like a bug.  Do not let this be an excuse for thinking you don’t have real bugs too.

– Be transparent about the plans and the results.

Get this stuff fixed and make sure it stays fixed.  This is not a, “Let’s fix the top 100/1000/or whatever bugs,” thing.  It’s a cultural change accompanied by results.

3.  Build a High Performance Native Compiler

Yes, I know, it is wonderful that Flash programs work everywhere.  But you are dealing with Performance perception and a company that says they will only let Native tools in the tent.  Figure out how to kill both birds with one stone.  Every platform does not need a native compiler.  But, if Facebook can afford to build a PHP compiler for performance sake, you definitely can afford to do this.  If you don’t have any serious compiler gurus, get some on board.  While you’re at it, build an optimizer for your interpreted stuff too.  You need a two-pronged attack:

–  Better bytecodes with the usual optimizations that matter closer to the language–operator strength reduction and all that.

–  Killer native compiler that will run circles around your bytecode stuff when it needs to.

If you do it right, it should be possible to pick and choose which classes are native and which are bytecode within the same Flash app.  You will also need to provide infrastructure that makes it easy to serve up the right native version to whatever platform is being used by the consumer.  Don’t make your developers figure that out.  BTW, you need to get this into Beta in less than 12 months.  You don’t have much time.

There is an old saying, “If you want people to make a new decision, you must give them new information.”  This pair of developments is the new information for performance haters.

4.  Revisit the Asynchrony of Flash and Embrace Multicore

This may just be baked too deeply into the programming model, but it sucks.  Sometimes programs want to be able to block until something happens, and when they can’t they wind up wasting their time and you mobile device’s battery life to no good end.  This asynchronous stuff is a throwback to not having a real multi-thread model for Flash, and in the Multicore Era, that’s a liability.  Sure, current mobile platforms don’t have many cores.  It doesn’t matter.  #3 is really only a stopgap.  In the Multicore Era, if you want to completely crush the competition on performance, do it with more cores.  When I was at Oracle, it was all about building benchmarks that could use more cores than SQL Server.  Once you use more cores than the other guys, you become almost exponentially faster.

And while you’re at it, you will deliver a model that is much friendlier to developers.  Being able to deal with multiple threads and blocking should be the basis for Flex 5.

5.  Embrace the GPU and Knock ‘Em Dead With 3D

Last point.  For most machines, the graphics processor is the most powerful CPU in the machine.  That’s a big surprise to many, but hey, it’s true.  That sucker has got vector processing going on just like the old Cray supercomputers.  There are companies building supercomputers out of them, for Heaven’s Sake.  Our freakin’ Air Force uses the GPU’s in Sony Playstations to build supercomputers fer cryin’ out loud.  I know it is a pain to go native on the GPU.  Sometimes the OS doesn’t help you very much.  But you have to find a way to get your developer’s hands on those beautiful MIPS.  This is especially true since Flash is all about the visuals.  While you’re at it, build a killer 3D subsystem for Flash so peeps can create virtual reality, 3D modelers, CAD/CAM, killer FPS games, and a whole of others things you haven’t even thought of.  With #’s 3, 4, and 5, nobody will be able to touch you on the performance front.

6.  Bring Back the Flock with a Cross Compiler

In many ways, Apple’s insistance on anything but Flash is like an old-fashioned shelf space war straight out of the pages of Ye Olde Shrink Wrapped Software.  If I build my app in not-Flash, it is a pain for me to go back to Flash no matter how much I like it.  It is worse if my not-Flash is on a super hot platform, because I kind of want to just keep writing not-Flash on that platform once I get hooked. 

Here is the thing: if HTML5 is really as limiting as Flash devotees claim, it should be trivial to translate the limited functionality of HTML5 to Flash.  While you are at it, please undertake the slightly less trivial task of moving Objective-C to Flash.  Sound hard?  It is a little, but not any harder than all the other stuff you need to do.  Besides, I’ll bet you can do this one as a joint project with Google.  Why?  Easy:

Take any award-winning iPlatform app.  Feed source into your new cross compiler.  Push a button.  Get back an award-winning Android app written in Flash.  BTW, you can have it on your desktop or anywhere else too. 

Now what iPlatform developer could resist that if it all works great?  Don’t think of it as aiding the enemy by giving developers an opportunity to start from HTML5 with less downside.  The developers that will use this are already lost to you, and you need to bring back your flock.

7.  Keep Your HTML5 Powder Dry

By now Adobe, I expect you’re really feeling pretty unhappy with this post.  The stuff I am telling you needs to be done is not easy, and it won’t be cheap.  At the same time, you know in your heart that this is what it really takes to win this war.  It’s about to get worse.  HTML5 is coming.  All of those other steps will only allow you to maintain your lead for longer. 

You need to recreate everything that is great for your platform on HTML5.  But, you need to keep it in the backroom until the timing is right.  Don’t dribble it out.  Do big quantum leap releases.  Your first one should not be an also-ran.  It should establish Adobe as the premiere resource for HTML5 developers.

It’s just that simple

As I’ve said, this is a hard road.  But, if you don’t follow it, if you don’t dig down deep and go to war now in a meaningful way, you won’t catch up later.  You’ve got a great platform.  If you want to keep it, you know what to do.

Posted in apple, flex, Marketing, Open Source, platforms, ria, strategy, user interface | 6 Comments »

Forget Slick: Reputation, Transparency, and Guts

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 18, 2010

It’s been a little while since I wrote about a Seth Godin post.  ‘Bout time.  Godin is a must-read for me, and all of his posts are pithy, relevant, and urgent to understand.

Today’s subject is a brief post entitled simply, “Slick.”

We all crave slick.  In media, it is a signalling device for success and being a part of the “in” crowd.  But it doesn’t have quite the power it once did.  To paraphrase Huey Lewis, sometimes Slick is Bad, and Amateur is Good.  I think Blair Witch Hunt hit me with that realization hardest, when it came out.  The trouble is that we’ve been fooled too many times by Slick, and its gotten too easy to appear Slick when the reality is different.  We’ve come to mistrust Slick in some ways, and to be jaded towards it in others.  What else is new?  Marketing has always been about doing something different to get attention. 

It’s interesting to consider the ramifications of Slick and Marketing in the 2.0 era of Social.  I had another discussion earlier this morning when someone brought to my attention Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget.  Lanier has been a visionary for some time and made his bones around Virtual Reality.  Check this sample of his thoughts about Web 2.0:

Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction. Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomenon that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with reduced expectation of what a person can be, and who each person might become.

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money.  If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty.  If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.

The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract.  The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.  Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion.  Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.

He’s definitely angry, but to my ear it doesn’t resonate as righteous anger but as bitter anger, tinged with envy.  There’s too little content there to judge (Michael Coté’s review is more complimentary and he’s read the whole book), but at the very least, Lanier’s passages don’t strike me as reflecting a keen understanding of people.  Like many musicians, journalists, and artists, he reflects an attitude that such work is so valuable it must be compensated and nobody dares think otherwise.  I knew a fantastic jazz pianist once who absolutely would not ever let anyone hear him play, even friends, unless he was at a gig he was being paid for.  Somehow, he thought it demeaned his art and made him less a professional.  Perhaps he only wanted to be heard at his “Slickest”.  I never figured it out.

That’s a pity.  What Lanier and his like-minded peers miss is that not everyone is an artist.  Some are happy just to be heard.  Moreover, he must have forgotten that not every artist was always discovered.  At some point they wanted to be heard too.  The tone of these folks puts them in the odd company of people like Rupert Murdoch, which makes no sense to me.

Getting back to Seth Godin, he explains eloquently why this Dystopian exploitation of art that Lanier fears is not such a worry.  Forget Slick.  Tell it from the heart.  Worry about your Reputation.  Be Transparent.  It will take some Guts, but the web gives you a place to stand where you can move the world.

Posted in Marketing, strategy | 1 Comment »

Search, Follow, or Get it Out of My Way!

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 17, 2010

With apologies to Thomas Paine’s, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” my headline for this post is a recitation of how most people filter the information and communication that comes to them online.

From a marketer’s perspective, as well as an information consumer’s, this is darned limiting in the oddest kinds of ways.

We can search for information we desire.  In this case, our keywords drive not only the search, but for marketers, they pre-screen the searcher to ensure there is reason to believe they may have interest.  After all, they’ve told us what they are searching for.  This curious intersection of declaration of desire and the use of a separate search engine to find the objects of desire is what has made Google such an incredibly valuable franchise.

The Social world has brought us the idea of “following” or “friending”.  We can identify some stream of information and subscribe to it.  This is another way of declaring desire.  Whether you follow by subscribing to an RSS feed, following on Twitter, or friending on Facebook, it’s all the same in that sense.  This is why marketers would buy ads on Twitter or Facebook.

“Getting it out of my way,” represents the last commonly used means of filtering information and communications.  By that, I mean the lowly spam filter that guards our email inbox.  People deride email as a time waster and Old School, but it serves a useful purpose because anyone can send an email to you.  If you are not actively searching (or actively finding is more like it), and you have not followed the right sources, how can you be reached?  It is valuable to be reachable, and this is why I wonder about important people who decide just not to use email.  Really?  Too much noise?  How do you ever take advantage of serendipity with no email and an unlisted phone number?

In some sense, this post is mostly about filtering the information sources that are used for serendipitous connections, e-mail being the best example.  How can I let anyone contact me via a channel, yet manage the channel so I mostly see what I am actually interested in seeing?  Sticking strictly to search, follow, or get out of my way is so limiting that I can’t help but wonder when we’ll be able to do better. 

What if I want to read emails sent from anybody who is a contact for anyone who is one of my contacts?  A friend of a friend is often someone you’d be happy to hear from, especially if your friend took the time to enter them into their own list of contacts.  This is the sort of thing that is pretty easy for mail providers to offer, but they don’t seem to think of it.  Maybe I am willing to go three levels out–a friend of a friend of a friend.  It’s rare indeed that I hear from someone interesting who is further removed than that.  Come to that, if I have all this friend info and I am searching, maybe I want to be able to re-rank my search results not by Page Rank, but by Friend Rank.  Which search results did my friends actually click-through to?  Maybe those should rank higher or be called out to me in some way so I know.  While a marketer wants to be able to tell me, “Your pal so and so bought that so you should too,” that’s way too invasive and privacy problem prone.  If all I know is, “Someone on your contacts list made that choice,” that might be more manageable, and something people would deal with on a privacy basis.

We’re going to have to do  more in this “affinity filtering” area.  Retailers like are already pretty good at it.  “People who bought this also bought that.”  But wouldn’t it be interesting if you knew more about those “People?”  Does it matter more to you to know that “Your friends who bought this also bought that” than just arbitrary “People?”

Systems will also need more memory despite the fact that statefullness is verboten in architectures.  The last time I searched for “trepanner”, I was interested in the metal-cutting tool, not the practice of boring holes in people’s heads.  That probably tells you that when I search for “reamer” I also want the metal-cutting tool, and not the surgical instruments or some other “reamer.”  If need be, you can disambiguate the way Wikipedia does.  It’s very helpful.

Getting back to our email, if my friends accepted that email without marking it as spam, I probably should too.  We do have affinity spam marking, and that’s good.  But, I want that contact-based capability.  If you are that busy VC, wouldn’t it matter to you if the person sending the mail was on the contact list of one of the other partners in your firm, but just not on yours yet?  Wouldn’t it also matter if they were on the contact list of some other VC at some other firm? 

Put all this next level filtering together, make it easy for me to apply it to my email, search results, and any RSS feed, and you will have made a tremendous difference in reducing information overload.

Posted in user interface | Leave a Comment »

Web Services (and Platforms) as Governments

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 12, 2010

Union Square VC Brad Burnham’s post of the same name, brought to me by Fred Wilson, says we should think of Web Services (I like the Platform name better) as Governments.  This is something I’ve been saying for years with my posts about how you want platforms that act like Switzerland.

None of the platforms mentioned in the article are Switzerlands, unfortunately.  None even seem to be Western-style democracies.  As Burnham puts it:

One thing is for sure – none of these platforms are democracies. They are oligarchies controlled by founders, investors or shareholders.

He goes on to call out each one:

–  Apple is a Monarchy with Steve Jobs the King who acts capriciously and goes on rants.

–  Facebook is Vladimir Putin’s Russia: not a happy analogy!

– Craigslist is perhaps closest to my ideal as Burnham sees it:  Despite Craig’s progressive personal politics, Craigslist lives the credo “a government governs best that governs least”.

– Twitter seems to fall somewhere between Facebook and Craigslist, but not in an entirely happy place.  Give them time, Brad, they’re still finding their way to power.

Of course these are the “governments” that Union Square’s portfolio companies have run up against and that have devalued their investments in some cases, so it’s not a happy thing.  As a VC used to exercising quite a lot of power over the portfolio (lots of articles about Tony Hsieh’s (Zappo’s Founder/CEO) loss of control to his board lately), he understands the value that being a totalitarian government can bring.  At least, I can only assume he’s thinking that way when he says about these totalitarian governments, “That may not be at all bad.”

But, I wonder if Burnham also understands the problems such power brings.  There are “governments” (and platforms) that act much more as Switzerland and that are quite large.  Amazon and Google are in this category.  An even better example of “government of the people, for the people, and by the people” is Open Source.  There is a reason why the world has gotten so paranoid about its platforms.  These latest examples of Monarchies and Dictatorships are certainly not the first.  Many companies have been stepped on by the platform governments.  There is a lot of scar tissue, and hence a tendency to look out for that.   But, with a bubble around the whole Social phenomenon, software easy to create for it, and the ability to grow so quickly, many were willing to forget the dangers and give it a go.  Hey, many have done extremely well with that and the music hasn’t stopped yet.  But it is becoming obvious there may be fewer chairs than we thought and not all chairs are equal.

Not all the big bad wolves have been intent on hunting in the forest.  While many are afraid Marc Benioff may steal their business if they come to rely too heavily on, he has so far been better behaved than the examples given of Apple, Facebook, and Twitter.  I know, because one would’ve regarded Helpstream as a competitor (SFDC’s Salesforce did), but at the same time we delivered value to their ecosystem since our app integrated with Salesforce, so we had this fascinating position of being on the App Exchange, getting great leads from it, and being regarded as a competitor by SFDC’s Salesforce.  It would have been fascinating to see how far they were willing to let us go.

In the end, companies have to decide what they are.  If their primary purpose is to be a platform, they rely on others to a greater or lesser extent for their livelihood.  They must decide as “governments” how to treat the merchant class.  They need to worry about how they will be regarded by that class.  In many of the cases cited, the problem is these organizations are not primarily focused on being platforms.  They want to own it all.  Being a platform was a convenience to help grow and build out their offering along the way, but it was never really the goal.  I worry about platforms that start out mostly as apps, even though Geoff Moore says that’s really the best way to create a platform.  Unfortunately, it also creates a lot of conflict of interest.

When you’re looking at platforms, look for Switzerland.  It has no aspirations beyond offering a wonderful banking system and a stable currency.

Posted in cloud, strategy, Web 2.0 | 14 Comments »

WordPress and the Dark Side of Multitenancy

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 11, 2010

Quite a bit of hubbub over WordPress’s recent outage.  A number of high profile blogs including Techcrunch, GigaOm, CNN, and your very own SmoothSpan use WordPress.  Matt Mullenweg told Read/WriteWeb:

“The cause of the outage was a very unfortunate code change that overwrote some key options in the options table for a number of blogs. We brought the site down to prevent damage and have been bringing blogs back after we’ve verified that they’re 100% okay.”

Apparently, WordPress has three data centers, 1300 servers, and is home to on the order of 10 million blogs.   Techcrunch is back and talking about it, but as I write this, GigaOm is still out.  Given the nature of the outage, WordPress presumably has to hand tweak that option information back in for all the blogs that got zapped.  If it is restoring from backup, that can be painful too.

While one can lay blame at the doorstep of whatever programmer made the mistake, the reality is that programmers make mistakes.  It is unavailable.  The important question is what has been done from an Operations and Architecture standpoint that either mitigates or compounds the likelihood such mistakes cause a problem.  In this case, I blame multitenancy.  When you can make a single code change that zaps all you customers very quickly like this, you had to have help from your architecture to pull it off.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for multitenancy.  In fact, it’s essential for many SaaS operations.  But, companies need to have a plan to manage the risks inherent in multitenancy.  The primary risk is the rapidity with which rolling out a change can affect your customer base.   When operations are set up so that every tenant is in the same “hotel”, this problem is compounded, because it means everyone gets hit.

What to do?

First, your architecture needs to support multiple hotels, and it needs to include tools that make it easy for your operations personnel to manage which tenants are in which hotels, which codelines run on which hotels (more on that one in a minute), and to rapidly rehost tenants to a different hotel, if desired.  These capabilities pave the way for a tremendous increase in operational flexibility that makes it far easier to do all sorts of things and possible to do some things that are completely impossible with a single hotel. 

Second, I highly encourage the use of a Cloud data center, such as Amazon Web Services.  Here again, the reason is operational flexibility.  Spinning up more servers rapidly for any number of reasons is easy to do, and you take the cost of temporarily having a lot more servers (for example, to give your customers a beta test of a new release) off the table because it is so cheap to temporarily have a lot of extra servers.

Last step: use a feathered release cycle.  When you roll out a code change, no matter how well-tested it is, don’t deploy to all the hotels.  A feathered release cycle delivers the code change to one hotel at a time, and waits an appropriate length of time to see that nothing catastrophic has occurred.  It’s amazing what a difference a day makes in understanding the potential pitfalls of a new release.  Given the operational flexibility of being able to manage multiple hotels, you can adopt all sorts of release feathering strategies.  Start with smaller customers, start with brand new customers, start with your freemium customers, and start out by beta testing customers are all possibilities that can result in considerable risk mitigation for the majority of your customer base.

If you’re a customer looking at SaaS solutions, ask about their capacity for multiple hotels and release feathering.  It just may save you considerable pain.

Posted in business, cloud, customer service, data center, saas | 10 Comments »

iPhone 4: Ho hum, but at least it fuels some trickle down economics…

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 7, 2010

Despite being plastered all over Techmeme, there’s nothing about the iPhone 4 that really gets my blood pumping.  About the same look, about the same feel, a few more features here and there, none of which I’m dying to get my hands on.  But at least its cheap.

Some years ago, there was the constant urge to upgrade one’s PC.  You had to get the new hotness, and it was hot.  Without the latest greatest, you couldn’t run the newest video games, and of course it was faster.  Yum!

We’re now an all-smartphone family.  The two kids and I have iPhones and my wife has an Android (like many women, she wanted a real keyboard because her fingernails made the iPhone hit or miss).  That’s cool, because like those PC ugrades of yore, there’s a farm team here which likes the upgrade-hand-me-downs.  My poor daughter has my original non-3G iPhone, though she still loves it.  Frankly, getting an iPhone 4 would make her happier than any of us, no matter whether she actually got the iPhone 4 or one of the hand-me-downs. 

With PC’s, there was more flexibility.  Give one kid the better video and the other the better mobo post-upgrade.  Then switch.  Harder to do that sort of thing with these new devices.  But there is still some hope of hand-me-down goodness.  After all, there are 2 Kindles, and that raises the question of a potential iPad incoming, which would free up a Kindle.

Welcome to the new device trickle down economics.

Posted in apple | Leave a Comment »

Blue Oceans and Quanta of Competitive Differentiaton

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 7, 2010

Do markets drive “AND” to the exclusion of “OR?” 
Sometimes it seems like it, but the reality is deeper and more mysterious.  This post was sparked by an interesting discussion among the Enterprise Irregulars group.  They were discussing how WebEx had steadily made their offering more and more difficult to love through feature bloat and how Skype’s newer screen sharing features were so easy.  I remarked by asking whether any had read the book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.”
It’s a fascinating look at how many businesses are failing at competition simply because of what is essentially feature bloat.  We’ve trained scores of marketers (especially product managers) and consumers to think in terms of big feature matrices.  The theory is that if you can check off more boxes than the other guy, you win.  That has certainly been endemic to the software industry.
But, as the book points out, this practice completely kills the passion, makes for lousy products, costs the product’s owners a fortune, and ultimately leads to faster commoditization. 
This discussion of WebEx vs Skype is exactly the kind of thing the book writes about.  But Vinnie Mirchandani, who has written a fascinating book (well worth a read!) called “The New Polymath” sees it differently.  He says, “Bob, goes in waves.  Markets drive AND not OR as my book points out over and over.”
Vinnie, I hear what you’re saying, but I interpret it differently.  Markets do not drive AND over OR.  Markets know nothing of either.  They are both simpler and more complex, contradictory and inscrutable, sometimes “this” and sometimes “that”.   Markets simply optimize for what they (meaning “we”) like to buy.  Like the judge and the pornography, they don’t know how to quantify or codify what they like, they simply know it when they see it.  They are not open-ended, they are closed, and feed on themselves.  As is so often the case, this means we cannot simply extrapolate the trend and assume the line keeps going.  There are strange attractors of many kinds wherever behavior can be found and especially in Darwinian systems like markets.
In this case, “AND” is not a universal principle because of attention span.  When you’ve successfully added your 237th feature, and competing products already have 229 other features, in most cases the market’s attention span long ago gave up caring about your next AND.  After dragging buyers through hundreds of skirmishes over these features, they know your competitors will short have features through 237.  They’re bored, confused, or just too darned tired to care any longer.  For a time they may turn to analysts whose job it is to keep up with the minutiae, but if someone can offer an alternative, they can be reached.  They are immediately attracted to the OR proposition of not having to care about that AND.  In fact, they are often relieved to hear that all those angels on the head of that pin were actually unimportant after all. 
The point of the “Different” book is not to even get started on the AND treadmill in the first place.  Is it so surprising that real design rather than simple-minded list building can create a more interesting result?  Not at all.  We see it constantly at work.  If we had to build into our software every single thing the last guy had built, we would never see paradigm shifts.  That which is SaaS exists precisely because the giants are buried in their own minutiae, and the world was tired of it.  It wanted that OR.
As the quantum of competitive advantage gets smaller and smaller, it should not be suprising that different physics entirely can take hold.  We must understand whether our market is in the grip of the Newtonian (many features, very small quanta = brands and the Gestalt experience rule) or Quantum (few features, large quanta = features rule) realms in order to be truly successful.  Students of the “Art of War” will know what this means from a competitive standpoint:
–  If your market is in the grip of Newtonian physics, where brands rule, throw the feature list out.  Do something different.  Be a Marc Benioff.
–  If your market is in the grip of Quantum physics, where features rule, build a brand.  VC’s instinctively know it isn’t about the features, it’s about who will get big firstest and fastest.  Those companies are building brands.
Notice how in neither case was building 237 features the winning formula?
These insights from “Different” are just variations on finding the Blue Oceans, but they work.  Surprising how much more often we’re starting to hear this kind of sentiment.  I see it echoed in 37Signals tomes as well as my favorite blogger, Seth Godin.
Go ahead, do something different.

Posted in Marketing, strategy | 6 Comments »

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