Android works out

As I’ve frequently mentioned, I’m a Grade A gadget geek, and require little excuse to get a new gadget, especially when it can be couched as something that aids fitness, and has an IT-management spin. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks running with Motorola’s Android-powered Motoactv fitness watch. It’s a neat device in that it interfaces with my existing heart-rate strap, plays MP3s to bluetooth-connected headphones, and even contains a WiFi radio that uploads workout data automagically when I return from a run.

It’s a nice feature set, and frankly amazes me that all of this fits in a watch-sized package. From an IT management perspective, you have a highly connected device sporting Bluetooth, ANT+ (a fitness device radio standard), GPS, and WiFi, all running on a connected, standards-based operating system at a commodity price, that fits in a water resistant, watch-sized case. This would have been unfathomable a decade ago, in a world of proprietary industrial controllers that cost the same as dozens of Motoactvs.

At these price points and feature sets, the world of “an internet of things” seems more of a possibility. Think of the capabilities (and management challenges) of tiny connected devices that could be embedded in everything from a machine on the shop floor, to a shipping container, each device reporting anything from location, to the status of various connected sensors. A device like the Motoactv not only represents the future of IT, but shows that innovation is truly happening in the consumer space, both in terms of capabilities and increasingly commoditized pricing.

Is four a crowd?

Poor Research in Motion can’t catch a break these days. From dismal earnings, to missed deadlines for BlackBerry OS 10, the company has largely been written off in many corners.

From an “ecosystem” perspective, the dust appears to be settling on the big three players in mobile, with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android the obvious market leaders, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone occupying a distant third spot in the running. Most of those writing off RIM suggest the market simply can’t support a forth major mobile operating system.

What many forget as they automatically write off RIM and BlackBerry 10 was that market-dominating iOS was once the fourth player in a smartphone field dominated by BlackBerry OS, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile (the previous incarnation of Windows Phone) and Palm OS. That playing field has effectively been decimated, with Microsoft the only remaining entity, and their Windows Phone an upstart rather than key player.

While we’re certainly in a different mobile market than we were a decade ago when RIM, Microsoft, and Palm ruled the roost, I believe there’s still a chance for a well-positioned innovator to parlay fourth place into something more. RIM lacks Apple’s distinct advantage of having a hot-selling consumer device (the iPod) that was easy to transition into a phone, but they do have a recognizable brand and history in mobile.

While there’s a lot RIM has to do right to succeed, a long-shot based on recent history, I’m not quite ready to consign RIM to the mobile dust bin.

Censoring Innovation

As we near the United States’ Independence Day holiday, which celebrates our country and its founding principles, I find it interesting that Google and Twitter have recently issued “takedown reports” that detail government requests for user information, and requests to remove content. These requests range from simple copyright violations (i.e. someone posting a clip from a movie) to requests related to criminal investigations, to requests to remove “politically offensive” information. Twitter, who released their first report yesterday, indicates that the US is responsible for nearly 80% of these requests, far above the second place United Kingdom, which originated a paltry 1.2% of these information requests on Twitter users. Google’s statistics tell a similar story.

It’s obviously ironic that a country priding itself on freedom and individual liberty has a government that’s 75 times more likely to demand information about its citizens than the nearest competitor. More frightening from an IT industry perspective is the threat this represents to innovation. The U.S. has a proud tradition of unknown tinkers building businesses like HP and Apple, literally from a corner of their garage. Innovation requires risk, consideration, and rule breaking, attributes that are cultivated and thrive in free and open societies. With storm clouds like constant patent wars and government censorship, I hope the 4th of July holiday reminds us that innovation truly requires freedom in order to thrive.

When you’re the product

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about purported “social-change” website Change.org. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, you can visit and sign your name to a variety of online petitions, attempting to compel anyone from national governments to corporations to adopts or change their stance on a variety of issues.

While all that seems well and good, skeptics claim Change.org is simply some “social conscious” window dressing for a company that aims to gather and sell personal information. Beyond the questionable representation of its product, it’s a great business: Grab someone’s email address, all them rapidly tell you the causes they’re most passionate about, then package all that up and sell it to the highest bigger. Everyone from nonprofits, to political organizations, to consumer products companies are understandably clamoring for this data.

While it might be perceived as sneaky to present your company as tirelessly trying to make the world a better place, then mining and selling the data of those that use your service, it follows what’s quickly becoming the web’s golden rule:

If you’re not paying for it, YOU’RE the product being sold

The Tech Worker “problem”

Yet another study released today shows that US students are shunning tech-oriented programs, with only 4.4% of US born undergraduates enrolling in science, math, technology, or engineering programs. There’s the usual hand wringing on the part of politicians and industry captains, but I find it little wonder that US youth see little opportunity for a fulfilling technology career when this news is a few inches down the newspaper page from tech titan HP laying of 27,000 employees.

Every profession has its ups and downs, but if the perception of your industry is typified by layoffs, Dilbert, and Office Space it’s little wonder future generations are wary of technology jobs. Frankly I think the industry has a marketing problem; US youth are smart enough to invest their undergraduate careers where they see the most long-term growth potential, and IT has done a poor job making a compelling case that it can provide compelling, interesting, fulfilling, and relatively stable career options for the best and brightest.

Now that’s a mission statement

I’m a bit fan of the Wall Street Journal, and noticed a small “About us” section while perusing the Opinion section online. The “mission” of the editorial page is:

We speak for free markets and free people, the principles, if you will, marked in the watershed year of 1776 by Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations.” So over the past century and into the next, the Journal stands for free trade and sound money; against confiscatory taxation and the ukases of kings and other collectivists; and for individual autonomy against dictators, bullies and even the tempers of momentary majorities.

In two crisp sentences the editors articulate the source of their views, broadly defined the foundations of their arguments, and clearly stake out where they stand. While you may or may not agree with the editors position, there’s no doubt about what it is. Many a mission statement could use 1/10th of the clarity of this one!

How to loose a customer in 7 seconds

I was in the market for a new “cloud” provider for a project I’m working on internally. I put a bit of diligence into the search, since it’s a service that might also be relevant for several of my clients.

One particular provider seemed to keep appearing in my search, so I aimed my web browser in their direction, looking forward to finding out more about their service. Rather than marketing copy, I was greeted by one of those annoying “you’re using a web browser we don’t like” screens. Usually, these are a minor annoyance and an be bypassed, however this one was static, and I could not click past it. Rather than some esoteric technology, I use the latest version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. While IE’s market share has eroded a bit in recent years, it’s still the most common browser on the web. While it might not be as sophisticated as some connoisseurs demand, rejecting IE from your marketing site would be like rejecting everyone who drove a car from your gas station, allowing only motorcycles.

I’m not sure if the marketing and technical geniuses behind this company actually thought someone in a position to buy their product would take an hour out of their day to select, download, and install a new browser and totally change their computing habits due to their demand, but in my case, I’ll gladly take my business elsewhere.

Methodology versus Management

I’m working in Dubai for several weeks this month, and struck by the management and leadership structure of the country. The political system is the antithesis of the democracies usually favored by the west: essentially a monarchy with no voting and no meaningful citizen participation, but also one of the new breed of “benevolent dictatorships” that many look to admiringly. Fans of this system point to places like Dubai and China and their ability to accomplish massive infrastructure projects in months, and an ability to implement a clear and consistent vision for the benefit of their citizens, without having to deal with the objections of those same citizens they aim to serve. Projects that would take western democracies years of debate and consideration are planned, approved, completed and forgotten before a western country could pick up a shovel or pass a relevant law.

In Dubai’s case, effective leadership drives expansion more than some inherent benefit of the political system that’s employed. The Middle East and Africa have no shortage of patriarchal monarchies, and Dubai’s individual leaders seemingly have leveraged the system to exploit their talents, essentially a victory of management and leadership over political methodology.This of course brings up the nagging question and inherent flaw of absolute rule: are the economic miracles in places like China and Dubai sustainable if the next generations of leaders lacks the talents of their predecessors?

The great power of western democracies is their considered advancement, and the general inability of a single person to completely corrupt and change the system without consent of the citizenry. Without delving too deeply into a political discussion, this is a nice analogy for the old debate in the corporate space about whether individual leaders or disciplined processes and methodologies create maximum benefit. In extreme cases, one can compensate for any flaws of the other, but they are most effective together.

IT Security and Free Markets

Several years ago I took some flak for suggesting during an interview with the IT press that Apple’s Mac OS was not subject to the virus and malware onslaught that’s plagued Windows due primarily to a simple function of market share. At the time, Windows XP was the dominant operating system on the world’s computers, and if your goal was to co-opt computers, steal information, or cause general mayhem, you’ll obviously target the most prevalent target. Call it the Willie Sutton rule if you will; the famous bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks, responded “Because that’s there the money is.”

Apple smugly marketed this dearth of malware as a sign that Mac OS was somehow superior, when much of the discrepancy was due simply to market share. The bad guys followed the Sutton rule and went “where the money is.” Along with increasing sales of Mac OS, we’re now seeing Mac OS subject to viruses and malware, recently with a “botnet” (a group of computers that have been co-opted by a nefarious entity) that contained nearly a million Mac computers.

Any mainstream computing product, from phones to enterprise software, will be subject to security attacks when it either reaches critical mass in the market, OR is run predominantly by companies with valuable information that’s worth stealing. The old quip about “security through obscurity” rapidly dissolves if you have something worth stealing behind that veil of obscurity, as recent bank, government, and software company hack attacks have demonstrated.

This commentary isn’t meant to incite fear and loathing, but rather to suggest a rational approach to risk based on what valuables your computing infrastructure holds. Just as you need not install Fort Knox-level security at the local convenience store, you need not go overboard on IT security. Conversely, you likely wouldn’t leave the door to your home wide open, nor should you dismiss IT security outright by assuming your company is too small, or your products too “magical” or obscure. In short, there’s a logical balance that should be driven by an assessment of risk, and the market share of the computing tools you use, not marketing copy or misguided notions of obscurity.

Movie Madness

I’m somewhat shocked that in 2012, there’s still not an easy way to buy or rent movies that can play on a multitude of common consumer electronics devices. The days of walking to a local retailer to purchase music on a disc seem long past, and something I’ll likely tell my son to quips like “Dad, you’re such a dinosaur”, yet Hollywood seems to cling to this model unquestioningly.

As a college student during the 1990’s when music piracy on the internet was new and my ideas about intellectual property were rather immature, digital downloads were all the rage. After unsuccessful efforts at everything from lawsuits to music playable on only some devices (one now-discontinued class of which was ironically branded “plays for sure”) universally-playable, non-protected music is available from Amazon and Apple for a buck. I’m glad to use a convenient online store, and instantly “scratch an itch” for a new song that I can play on my cheapo MP3 player I use for jogging, iPhone, and car. In essence, the paid product is easier to find, and of known quality versus the bootleg.

Hollywood seems to miss the message that consumers not only want instant gratification, but a product they know will work with minimal fuss on everything from their iPhone to their TV, or laptop at 30,000 feet while on a flight. Hollywood’s answer is increasingly complex copy protection, that necessitates particularly software and video hardware, and makes a consumer spend hours researching formats and protection schemes versus pirated video that will likely run on his or her device of choice.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I believe most consumers of pirated video would gladly pay for a high-quality product that was easy to find and easy to use. Browsing audio in iTunes and on Amazon is a joy, yet major studios complex licensing requirements and insistence on copy protection make the corresponding legitimate video product unwieldy. Want to watch a movie on a Friday night? Perhaps it was on Netflix on Monday, but pulled on Thursday due to a contract dispute. Interested in watching that movie you bought on iTunes? Too bad your Samsung TV won’t read the copy-protected format. Trying to use the new Hollywood “ultra violet” standard to watch a movie on your phone? Too bad there’s no supported player for your phone. It’s little wonder no one wants to buy a product with inferior features and a premium price.

While Hollywood certainly has reasons for attempting to cling to its old model, lambasting your consumers while simultaneously offering a grossly inferior product certainly looks like a tragic drama rather than a blockbuster of a strategy.