Monday, February 27, 2012

I Declare Email Bankruptcy!

“I Declare Email Bankruptcy”. This is a line that I have borrowed from the latest book by Neil Stephenson titled Reamde which I have just finished reading. The quote is not particularly central to the plot of the book but it immediately resonated with me. How many times do we all feel that there is just no hope to cope with all the incoming email and want nothing more than to throw in the towel and start all over? What we want is to declare email bankruptcy.

Some people suggested that this is the fault of the email application itself and that we can perhaps solve the problem by adopting different types of tools. There has been some news recently about different tools that improve dealing with the email torrent. For example, Fluent recently drew some attention with ideas on how to redesign email. Also, Social Media has been heralded as a solution to the email problem but in reality, you can get just as overwhelmed on your company’s internal social software. Sure, all of these tools can help but the problem of drowning in email cannot be solved with tools alone.

The root cause of the problem is our behavior, our discipline and our way of communicating with each other. Communication has to be taught. Professions that depend on clear and precise communication put their workers through often very rigorous training. Just think about the type of training required in any radio communication for air traffic control, law enforcement, or the military. Similarly, marketing people and corporate executives get trained on presentation skills, messaging, and talking to the press. In each case, communication requires a specific protocol, precision, and discipline.

The problem with email is that we take the skill for granted. Using Microsoft Office has become part of basic literacy and we expect every employee to know how to use email. But we shouldn’t confuse the skill to use the software with the skill to communicate. Those are not one and the same!

Let me give you an example that is all to frequent. When my manager delegates a task to me by forwarding an email request to me, I should not engage with the originator of the request while continuing to copy my manager on every single message. This often leads to a flurry of messages that just clog up his inbox and he is not likely paying any attention to. The correct protocol is to reply to my manager with a simple “I’ll take care of it” message and leave him out of the subsequent discussion. If I feel that it is needed, I can send him a status update later.

Continuing to copy my manager on every one of the subsequent emails says that I either feel insecure and want him to watch my every move or that I am completely ignorant of his own workload and time. Neither scenario helps my career aspirations.

Of course, some business processes may require a different communication protocol. I get involved a lot in various reviews and approvals of press releases, pricing proposals, product lifecycle reviews etc. Each one of them uses email and has to be done in a certain way. What I observe is that when we use email in a structured business process, it works reasonably well. But as soon as it gets outside the structured process, communication often becomes freewheeling.

This is the type of training that we don’t get today. And boy is it needed! The next time you complain about your overflowing inbox, ask yourself if it really is the fault of the tool.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pinterest is Growing - What Will Big Media Do?

My Pinterest board
I have been hearing a lot about Pinterest lately - the supposedly fastest growing online service ever. Of course, I had to check it out. I have created my Pinterest account using my Facebook profile (and immediately severed that connection on Facebook, just in case). After a bit of looking around I thought I got the hang of it and created my first online scrapbook. I’ve opted for a collection of vintage images of Jaroslav Drobny, one of the most remarkable athletes of all times. I know that you have probably never heard of him but check out my Pinterest board or his Wikipedia entry which I have authored mostly myself. Yes, I am not just a fan but a self-proclaimed authority on Drobny ;-)

Anyway, back to Pinterest - I can see the potential of this new service. Creating a collection of online pictures can be very useful for projects, as a collection of visual ideas, or as a fan page of any kind. But here comes the challenge. I am pretty sure that Pinterest is copying the pictures on its site which is probably a copyright infringement. It does preserve the link to the picture source which would probably placate image sources such as Flickr that essentially want to be pretty open and are content with sharing as long as the attribution is made.

But take my example of Drobny. There are probably no more than 20 of his pictures in existence online and most of the good ones are on sites such as Getty Images and Corbis. Of course I have included those images in my Pinterest board which I am pretty sure violates some copyrights or distribution rights. Unlike Flickr, Getty and Corbis are in the business of selling pictures for hefty prices and their customers are usually not individuals but businesses that purchase or license the pictures primarily for promotional purposes.

The big question is, what will Big Media do - Getty, Corbis but also most magazine publishers? On one hand, this is clearly violating their fundamental business principles. After all, if you want to publish a Getty picture on your site, you have to pay for it. Sure, you could also argue that Getty and Corbis only allow me to post a thumbnail of the images but I suspect that’s just a technical detail. The main principle - I am posting their content on my page is no doubt raising some bushy Big Media eyebrows.  

On the other hand, my online scrapbook hasn’t really harmed Getty, Corbis or any of the other sources. On Pinterest, I have no way to monetize the traffic from all the Jaroslav Drobny fans around the world. At least not yet. If anything, I have advertised the paid content. You could argue that I have created for free an online catalog for Getty - a catalog that can take advantage of the social powers of Pinterest since the Pinterest boards can have multiple contributors. That’s actually a pretty good resource for Getty if you ask me.

But I am not sure which tactic the Big Media companies will use. What I do know is that they are faced with yet another possible disruption. Something new that came out of nowhere and that is becoming hugely popular. There are the first signs that indicate Big Media is noticing and their initial reaction is - yet again - an attempt to squash the intruder. Under media pressure, Pinterest just started allowing sites to opt out of their service. Well, I’m not sure that’s the best course of action for Big Media but I am not surprised as this has been their usual modus operandi ever since the World Wide Web has emerged.

What to do, what to do?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Government Conspiracy

Something’s up. The secret must have leaked. The vultures of power are all conspiring to take over. Let’s put the Genie back into the bottle! Or at least let us control it. It has been without any supervision for too long and now that we understand how important it is, how strategic it is, we cannot let it continue. Let the kids move aside and let the grown-ups take over!

What am I talking about? The Internet! In the last few months, the attempts of governments around the world to control the Internet have notably intensified. The governments want to control it.

There is the Patriot Act which gives the US government sweeping rights to search your data on the Internet by ignoring any individual or organizational privacy rights.

How about Internet Neutrality? Shouldn’t we make sure that important business gets the preferential treatment while the gamers and file swappers get less bandwidth? There has been many calls to enact a law for that.

Then, there is the content piracy issue with its series of failed attempts to assert controls over the digital universe - most recently culminating in SOPA. But as we have put SOPA and PIPA to rest in the US, the Europeans are stirring emotions with the ACTA agreement just as I am typing these words.

Let us also not forget the “three strikes” law that has been adopted in countries such as France and the UK. This law allows the government to cut off individuals from Internet access for repeated content piracy violations. These laws have been actually condemned by the UN Human Rights Council in a special report. Yet they exist.

Next, there is the question of censorship. A couple of weeks ago, Twitter made the headlines by allowing censorship in various countries, presumably under pressure from such countries. A few years ago, RIM went through a similar experience with having to bow to the will of countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and India when their governments demanded control over their citizen’s email. Even before that, various countries have been asking for the master key for any encryption technology used in their virtual airspace.

So what’s happening? Are the governments waking up to the significance of the Internet and the degree to which it dominates their economy? YOU BET! Governments around the world are used to full control of their countries’ infrastructure - from transportation, communication, commerce, to entertainment, education, and politics. But to date, the Internet has evolved with very little government supervision and as one industry after another is being completely transformed by the Internet, governments are worried about losing control completely. After all, if everything moves to the unregulated virtual universe, what’s there going to be left for government to regulate?

So it is not a surprise that the governments are trying to fight back. Their allies are the very same industries that have been under the threat of extinction because they failed to adapt in the age of the Internet: entertainment, telecom, retail, publishing, etc. The good old ally called national security comes in very handy too.

What governments fail to realize is the amount of business that happens on the Internet because it is free and unregulated. Sure, revenue streams have moved from one company to another and new industries have grown where others have declined. Internet companies have exploited legal loopholes such as avoiding to charge sales tax. But the Internet is essential for the economy today. Free Internet, that is. Because only thanks to the fact that the Internet is free and open to everyone, has it gained the kind of adoption that is propelling a big portion of any nation’s GDP today.

I am not advocating for any criminal activity on the Internet. Laws are laws and they should apply to the Internet the same way as they do anywhere else. But artificial protectionism and tampering with the Internet’s fundamental principle is dangerous - possibly disastrous to the economy of a given nation or even to the entire world. The governments have to be very careful tempting such powers. And we, the people, have to remain vigilant and continue reminding our governments that we want to keep the Internet free.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The State of the Mobile Market

The latest marketshare data for the mobile devices market has been released recently and I thought that it might be a good time to take a look at the mobile market today and tomorrow. First, lets take a look at the data that comes from comScore, combined with the latest Nielsen report and with data from iSuppli and a few other sources. The most widely reported information is the smartphone market share which looks as follows (comScore):
Basically, there are three vendors left today - Google, Apple, and RIM - with RIM losing market share while Google and Apple are growing. A forth vendor, Microsoft is fighting what seems to be a loosing battle to connect with the leading group. According to many analysts including Gartner and IDC, we will see some massive changes in the near future. The research firm iSuppli recently published a report that suggests that the Windows Phone will not only knock off the fast-fading RIM from its 3rd spot but it will even steal the 2nd spot away from Apple:
So why are all the analyst so bullish on Windows Phone when Microsoft has been losing marketshare so far? Well, the next data point may suggest an explanation:
As we can see, the smartphone penetration is still relatively low but growing very quickly. The overall market growth for mobile devices is at 10.8% according to iSuppli and both Nielsen and iSuppli expect that 60% of devices sold in 2015 will be smartphones. That means that there is plenty of marketshare to grab amid the double digit device growth, the rapid growth of smartphone penetration and the decline of other vendors.

Not a bad market to be in, is it? No wonder the vendors are so desperate to grab a piece of this pie. Today, Google and Apple have a clear lock on the top two positions while RIM keeps sliding and Microsoft is nowhere - at least so far. There are rumors about a Facebook phone and HP still has to make up or re-make up their mind about what to do with webOS. Here are some thoughts about the respective players:

Google has grabbed a ton of market share thanks to all the Asian manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony, etc. They all needed an operating system and since Google Android is free, the choice was easy. So far so good except that there are three big problems looming ahead. First, as a result of the open source model, the Google market has become massively fragmented and application developers struggle to support all the device types. Second, Google acquired Motorola which will make it difficult to keep the competition honest between its own devices and the other vendors. Third, Google is hardly making any money on Android - in fact they are paying hefty patent fees to Microsoft for each device - which makes it a hard business to sustain for a publicly traded company.

Apple may have lost the top market share spot to Google but honestly, Apple is running circles around everybody. Leveraging their unique value proposition of a tightly integrated system consisting of hardware, software and content, Apple is just piling up profits and making everyone else look bad. Make no mistake, the market share loss in units has nothing to do with market share in revenue and profits where Apple is standing head and shoulders above the rest of the industry combined. The decline in units market share is not a result of an inferior product or any systemic problem. It is more the result of the fact that many users are upgrading their feature phones and opting for the cheapest smartphone available without caring much about the operating system. Those users are clearly not Apple’s target customers. Apple is after the more affluent user who will not only shell out a premium price for a premium brand but who will also keep contributing to Apple’s profits through ongoing purchases on iTunes.

Unlike Google who’s Android is basically a less polished version of Apple’s iOS, Microsoft has built a very distinct and compelling mobile operating system. But adoption is so far eluding Microsoft for several reasons. The vendors selling Microsoft Phone devices are the same lot as those who sell Android. Android is free and Windows Phone is not and so guess who they push more? The second issue is that Microsoft has bet the farm on their Nokia partnership which was a smart move except that Nokia didn’t ship any Windows phones until the end of last year. The third and by far most important issue is the lack of developer support. Apple and Google have attracted many developers quickly leveraging superior tools, compelling business models and - in the case of Google - the open source effect. Microsoft has shown little love to developers so far. Unless Microsoft addresses these issues, they will always continue battling at best for the third place.

Well, it has been widely reported that RIM is in trouble and just replacing the CEOs is not going to fix that. RIM’s greatest problem is the lack of innovation. The good old BlackBerry may work fine and be more secure than iPhone but it is no longer hip enough even for the executives at stodgy brick-and-mortar companies. Today, RIM needs a purpose, a focus, and a compelling way to differentiate. Leaking pictures of phones that could ship in two years and be almost as cool as the iPhone is today is not going to do it. Even if those new RIM phones were available today, it would hardly make much difference. Besides needing some innovative and competitive products, RIM also has to address the developer support just like Microsoft.

To be complete, I should also mention HP as the only other remaining MOS vendor. Or did they announced that they have killed webOS? Yeah, whatever. I will write another post when I meet a user with a webOS based smartphone.