Saturday, April 30, 2011

Some mean very evil men more likable than others

Earlier this month I had two opportunities to learn more the humiliating demotion of Pluto, the distant icy world of our solar system that was unceremoniously stripped of planetary status in an August 2006 vote at an astronomy conference.

One was my first visit to the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered on Feb. 18, 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. The Flagstaff facility was established in 1894 by Boston heir Percival Lowell to further his planetary observations, first of the “canals” of Mars and then later a systematic search for the 9th planet that continued after his 1916 death.

I had hoped to visit the 13" Pluto Telescope, but we missed the last guided tour of the day. However, one of the Lowell researchers, Dr. Kim Herrmann, summarized the Pluto controversy from the standpoint of the institution most vested in its continuing survival.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It ComingThe other opportunity came from reading the 2010 book How I Killed Pluto by Prof. Mike Brown of Caltech. Dr. Brown offers a memoir of his efforts over the past decade to revisit and extend the Lowell-Tombaugh efforts using modern technology. Finding the book was pure serendipity — it was was one of the few books remaining at our local Borders, which I happened to visit three days before its planned closure.

The book was surprisingly engaging, working on three levels: a history of his planetary discoveries, as a personal memoir, and an insight into the science and politics of modern astronomy. It is my latest example of an engaging history of science, which also includes Uncertainty, a scientific history I read a few years ago about Heisenberg’s fight with Einstein over what would be known as the “uncertainty principle.”

While hinting at the Caltech astronomer’s humorous writing style — honed writing a blog about planets — the tongue-in-cheek title of Brown’s book contained more than a little hyperbole. A more accurate title would have been “How my research team's successful search for Kuiper Belt Objects accelerated the long-overdue re-classification of Pluto’s status,” but then sales would have been even less. (Being the second book by a US astronomer on Pluto’s demotion also probably didn’t help sales.)

In any event, Brown didn’t kill Pluto. Beginning in 1998, he led what became a team of three Ph.D. planetary astronomers (including Chad Trujillo and David Rabinowitz) and various Caltech students and staff in an incredibly successful search for objects beyond Neptune.

Using the 48-inch Schmidt telescope on Palomar Mountain (rather than its more famous 200" neighbor), and begging time on more powerful Keck and Hubble telescopes, the team discovered dozens of Kuiper Belt Objects (the book, alas, is not very precise in this regard.). The notable ones include Quaoar (June 2002), Sedna (Nov. 2004), Haumea (Dec. 2004), Eris (Jan. 2005) and Makemake (April 2005).

Their calculation that Eris (née Xena) was larger than Pluto led to its brief status as the “tenth planet” of our solar system. This put in motion a re-evaluation of what is a planet that culminated in the August 25, 2006 vote by the International Astronomical Union to create a new category of “dwarf planet,” and to demote Pluto to that status.

In fact, Brown suggests that vote was a good outcome from a bad process: while he agrees in the demotion of Pluto (and with it Eris), he disagreed with the bureaucratic definition of “planet” and how it was voted upon. The secrecy and machinations around the 2006 vote are not the only flaws of IAU governance revealed by Brown, but he appears committed to stick by the rules and processes as the best available for his profession.

Brown is well aware that pushing for reclassification of Pluto would also remove his name from the history books as a “planet” discoverer alongside Tombaugh, Le Verrier and Herschel. This is but one example of the refreshing humility of this deservedly famous planetary astronomer, whose book use self-deprecating humor and a willingness to persuade and debate rather than dictating to a lay audience.

Prior to the IAU decision, Brown evaluated the pros and cons of various possible outcomes. He worked with Caltech’s media relations department to create press releases for four specific scenarios, including the original 9 planets, the (eventual) 8 planet scenario, and one that would have promoted hundreds of planetoids (including Quaoar and Sedna) to planetary status.

As an early member of Pluto’s Facebook fan page, I certainly found the book more persuasive than the arguments of a celebrity astronomer who appeared on the Jay Leno show two years ago to flog his own book justifying Pluto’s “death.”

One reason was that Brown is the person who knows more than anyone in the world about sizable trans-Neptunian objects in our solar system. As in any field, astronomy has its sub-specialities, and you would no more consult a cosmologist on planetary discovery than a TV weatherman on global warming or a Fortune 100 CEO on staring the next Google.

Apparently being a butt-head astronomer is an occupational hazard for such celebrities. Brown is clearly a different type of famous astronomer — a real astronomer who became famous — most vividly demonstrated when he has to roll up his sleeves and do his own research after his post-doc graduates to a real job.

At the denouement of the story — the August 2006 IAU vote — Brown describes how the decision touched a nerve among a public raised in a nine-planet solar system captured by the childhood mnemonic “My very excellent mother just served up nine pizzas.” In a radio interview Brown gave to defend the outcome, one of his radio listeners suggested a replacement mnemonic — “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature” — the one that Brown recommends to this day.

Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of ScienceOverall, the book is a testament to the humility of a “hard” scientist who will be remembered in history long after most of my social scientists colleagues (and I) have been forgotten. Discovering large celestial objects people said didn’t exist is a more timeless contribution than generalizing from industrial practice in a particular time and place.

So alongside Uncertainty, I would heartily recommend How I Killed Pluto. It’s both highly entertaining and a true discoverer like Prof. Brown deserves the royalties.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

At long last, small NookColor improvement

Barnes & Noble released their NookColor 1.2 update on Monday, updating the 7" tablet to Froyo (Android 2.2) and providing a limited app store.

After playing with it for 24 hours, I can say there are two major pieces of good news. One is Flash: I tried it with Google Voice, and was able to listen to my voicemail messages. (Obviously I couldn’t make calls from my NookColor because it lacks a microphone).

The other is a decent email client. It auto-configured for my two Gmail accounts, and seems allow for arbitrary POP and IMAP servers. (One quibble: no "Reply-To" field, important in many organizations.)

A third small but useful change — the Quick Settings popup includes the screen brightness, something I asked for last December.

However, the long overdue app store is a bust. The contact application is still useless: as before, it only picks up email addresses from Gmail, not the phone number, street address, or any other contact information.

And there’s still no calendar app. The 7" screen of my NookColor is larger than my last physical organizer in the 1990s — it would be a great way to schedule and view meetings, again synchronized to Gmail, Exchange or whatever.

Android phones have a decent built-in calendar and a choice of dozens of calendar apps, but the NookColor still has no built-in calendar. The only one in the app store is the Fliq Calendar — criipleware for a paid side-loading application that doesn’t synchronize to the net — an odd choice for a device that’s always on Wi-Fi and rarely on USB.

And that’s the rub: there are only 139 (there were 140 Tuesday night) Nook Apps™ for the NookColor vs. an estimated 150,000 for Android overall. There are only 15 free apps, versus 100,000+ for the iPhone and tens of thousands for the iPad. A dollar for a clock app?

Maybe there’s just a lag in qualifying. B&N is soliciting new developers to join their “qualified” developer program, so perhaps in a few months we’ll have a broader range of applications.

For now, what we have is a tablet that is exactly what was released last November — plus the long-promised Flash.

Still, this is amazing: 15 years after Palm Pilot, we have a 7" PDA that has no calendar and no usable address book. What gives?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The future that hasn't happened yet

Predicting the future is hard because it hasn’t happened yet. — Attributed to Yogi Berra
For the third and perhaps final time, my friend (co-author, consultant and startup CEO) Michael Mace came Monday SJSU to speak to my honors undergraduate students.

As in the previous visit, the subject was “knowing the unknowable.” The idea of the talk was to prepare these management students for careers at Silicon Valley tech companies.

Mike drew on his experience at Palm (chief competitive officer, VP of strategic marketing, VP of product planning), SGI (director of strategic marketing) and Apple (director of platform marketing, director of competitive analysis).

Predictions Gone Wrong

Competing for the FutureHe recounted seven predictions from the best-selling business 1994 book Competing for the Future by Gary Hamel and (the late) CK Prahalad:
  1. real-time oral translation
  2. urban undergraduate distribution
  3. miniature robots that can unclog arteries
  4. satellite phones anywhere on earth
  5. machine capable of reeling emotion
  6. virtual meetings room replacing air travel
  7. digital highway that bring torrents of information into the home
Only the last two have happened to any degree, with virtual meetings still a niche. Overall, he scores it as 1.5/7 — a .214 batting average "would get you sent to the minor leagues."

The problem is that "no business can bet on seven on those things"; if you bet on any of these, "chances are very likely that you'd lose your shirt". Exhibit A would the Motorola-backed Iridium satellite phone, that lost $2.6 billion in what Wired called the “Edsel of the Sky.”

Why They Go Wrong
Because there are so many examples of group think — what he calls the “flying car problem” — Mace advised student to bet against the consensus.

He listed a typology of reasons why things could go wrong:
  • completely impossible
  • economically impractical — you misunderstood the market
  • competitive displacement — better alternatives (i.e. substitutes) such as the cellphone as a substitute for sat phones.
  • no champion: the existence of tablets before the iPad. Could be great business, but nobody does the product right.
  • possible but not practical yet: largest group of failed predictions (For example, for years he’s been hearing that fuel cells will be in cellphones in 18-24 months).
One problem with faulty predictions is trying to figure how long something will take. Mace advises: "If it's not working in an engineering prototype, you don't know when it’s going to ship”; or, to quote futurist Paul Saffo: "Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

In his views, there are two types of companies:
  • visionary, who focus on what the future should be, led by people like Steve Jobs, Jeff Hawkins. “They are completely right up until the point that they’re wrong. … These are people who can march everyone off a cliff.”
  • reactive react to what the future will be. Good at responding to incremental change, but prone to groupthink.
Competitive Analysis: Doing it RIght

Instead, he recommends that firms map and shape the future: "The fundamental thing about the future is that it hasn't happened yet".

He described the process he used at Apple and Palm; he argued that Palm proved prescient at predicting the future in 2001-2002 but lost resources to act upon it. (His approach overlaps what b-schools sometimes teach for scenario planning).

In Mace’s view, firms can create a roadmap of the future by integrating three different functions:
  • market research: they identify destinations on the map, but need to overcome their narrow view of merely being reactive to external queries;
  • advanced technology: they find the roads. If such functions exist, they tend to be in the CTO office and focus on “science experiments” rather than market reality.
  • competitive analysis: where the competition will go and respond. At many companies, if this function is left it’s just a few interns without the experience to analyze the data.
Mace said it’s the responsibility of management both to force these three groups to work together, think about the implications and get decision makers to listen their conclusions.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How long can Netflix's luck last?

The two most remarkable success stories since I started this blog four years ago have been Apple and Netflix. Both have continued to hit new record levels of success long after the doubters predicted they would run out of steam. Certainly I regret not buying either stock — either at the beginning, or at least during the dip in late 2008.

However, to me their strategies seem fundamentally different. Apple is both vertically integrated and pursuing related diversification to create new markets. Netflix is finding other modalities to do the same thing.

On Saturday morning, the LA Times website published a story highlighting its looming competition:

Netflix's days without competition may be numbered
Some big firms are said to be lining up to challenge Netflix, the only company that streams a large selection of movies and TV shows online by subscription. But is it already too big to be unseated as the dominant player?

By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
April 23, 2011
Now Apple (despite naysayers) has done a great job of fending off competition on iTunes, iPod and iPad — but obviously Android has had a big impact on its iPhone market share (if not its profits).

Netflix’s traditional business was threatened previously by Blockbuster and Walmart, but so far the challenges have fizzled out (as Blockbuster continued its CFIT — in this case Chapter 11).

The LA Times is not really interested in another dot-com success story. Its interest, as the house organ in a company town, is on the effect Netflix has on the media industry. The movie companies don’t want Netflix to be their monopsonist any more than the record companies wanted Apple and iTunes to be a monopsonist.

So in the story is a bit of longing by the LAT’s sources — a desire by Hollywood to have more distribution options, even if the evidence thus far suggests that is a fantasy.

To his credit Fritz doesn’t take a position either way. He’s right: so far, it’s too hard to call. Everyone wants to dislodge Netflix — notably Amazon, Walmart, Hulu and Dish Networks/Blockbuster — but so far no one has.

I particularly liked one line that captures the reality distortion of the SV view of Netflix:
Netflix has a number of advantages that make it difficult to challenge, such as sophisticated software to recommend what users might like to watch and a brand name that's becoming as familiar as Starbucks.

But retailers and cable companies have their own marketing strengths and reach huge audiences, including many who don't live in affluent urban communities where the lack of a Netflix subscription can elicit gasps of surprise.
The Netflix mania reminds me of the TiVo mania five years ago. All manias reach a peak, but so far the Netflix peak is nowhere in sight.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Siren Call of Silicon Valley

The morning paper reports that Dell is the latest major IT company to be lured by the sirens of Silicon Valley. I suspect it won’t be much more successful than any of its predecessors.

The Merc leveraged Dell’s Tuesday press release to extend their report last week that the company was leasing 240,000 square feet in Santa Clara, and had 341 open jobs posted in the Bay Area.

The Dell news release summarized the decision:

Dell today announced plans to open the Dell Silicon Valley Research and Development Center, a new facility that will support Dell’s strategic expansion of solutions capabilities, including the areas of networking design and development, storage development and cloud computing. The new site complements Dell’s Israel Research and Development Center, announced last month in Ra’anana. Dell believes that with recruitment of additional staff, its workforce at the Silicon Valley site will grow to more than 1,500 team members over the next five years.

The new facility will allow Dell to consolidate much of its current Northern California operations in phases over the next several quarters. It will combine the operations of several area companies Dell has acquired, including Zing (Sunnyvale), Ocarina (San Jose), Scalent (Palo Alto), and Everdream (Fremont) into approximately 240,000 square feet of leased space in two adjacent buildings on Great America Parkway in Santa Clara.
In other words, Dell’s decision to expand here was largely motivated by the need to more effectively manage its SV acquisitions.

This is exactly parallel to Qualcomm’s decision almost four years ago to buy a 320,000 square foot campus to consolidate its own Bay Area acquisitions, notably SnapTrack (which later made Steve Poizner a household name) and most recently Atheros. The only difference is that Qualcomm bought its land — and thus appears here for the long haul.

The older Merc story notes two foreign telecom companies expanding here recently: Huawei and Nokia (although Nokia’s research center has been in Palo Alto for at least five years). Motorola, British Telecom and Deutsche Telekom are also here, as are most of the Japanese electronics companies and SAP of Germany.

But will it matter? Perhaps the sirens of Silicon Valley won’t be luring Fortune 500 (or Global 500) companies to their deaths, but will they actually help these firms succeed?

Digital Equipment Corp. (DECWRL) and Xerox (PARC) had major research labs in Palo Alto 30 years, but they did nothing to stem their eventual declines. IBM invented the disk drive and the floppy disk in San Jose, but then dumped that operation to Hitachi in 2002 and now the Cottle Road facility is a strip mall. (The still have their 1977 Santa Teresa Lab and their 1986 Almaden Research Center, but both are at the edges of the valley and not closely integrated into it.)

So for Dell, Qualcomm and others, the Silicon Valley branch office provides a convenient way to integrate acquisitions (and for the startups to find a friendly acquirer.) But I can’t think of a single example of a foreign or US company whose SV operations have made a significant difference in their ultimate success: the key decisions are made elsewhere, and most of the value is added elsewhere as well.