Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Farewell, Ma Bell

Today SBC AT&T turned off the phone service that we've had at our house in San Jose for nearly 10 years. I think this will mark (with a few brief exceptions) the first time in my adult life that I’ve not had telephone service with AT&T — over 30 years' worth.

As a high school phone hacker (not quite a phone phreak), I owned my own phones back before that was allowed. I had service in college (except my first year in a dorm) at UCLA and at MIT, and when I moved back to California permanently after college I turned on service the minute I had an apartment. The only exceptions were a) during a summer spent in Dublin my service was suspended when my apartment-sitter ran up the long distance bill and b) as a newspaper reporter, there were a few months where I couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill until I gave up my 1BR and moved in with someone else.

AT&T's loss was not due to their normal reason. Unlike our teenager — who I expect will have only a personal (mobile) number for her life — our household is keeping a landline.

And it’s not like I’m mad at The Phone Company — as I was at various points during the past 30+ years, even to the point of (in high school) making our own student film called “We Hear You,” a low-budget ripoff of “The President’s Analyst.” (I did special effects and played the bad guy driving my dad's menacing-looking sedan).

Nope, we’re switching (for now at least) to phone service from our cable company, for four reasons. One, it’s cheaper — mainly because US long distance is free. Two, they came up with a clever way to solve the power failure problem (which was highly salient for San Diegans after last fall). Third, our respective parents both have it and since neither of them are technically savvy, it must be pretty seemless.

Finally, it’s not just that it’s replacing AT&T with cable, but which cable company it is. In SoCal we get Cox, an innovative responsive company that did a great job for us (particularly on Internet) when we lived there before. If we were staying in the Bay Area, there’s no way we’d ditch AT&T for Comcast, which has been terrible and is a ruthless monopolist that would make ol’ Ma Bell blush.

So bye-bye, Ma. It’s been good knowin’ ya, and perhaps our paths will cross again.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Google still winning cloud race

I now have firsthand experience with various cloud based email services, and Google still remains firmly in the lead.

My life is pulled in (at least) three directions when it comes to cloud-based (aka hosted, aka SaaS) mail services:

  • This month, my employer (a Microsoft shop) decided to migrate from an Exchange server to the Office 365 hosted services. I guess as an IT-knowledgeable employee, they made me one of the guinea pigs. So this week I'm trying to reconfigure my Mac and cellphone to work with the new servers.
  • Meanwhile, on July 1, my wife was forced to migrate from mac.com (aka me.com) to iCloud. As the household IT support desk, the task fell to me, and we still haven’t been able to get it to work with her Mac.
  • Finally, my teenager and I are loyal users of gmail and other Google services. My teenager won’t use a client app anymore, while I use my various gmail addresses with my Eudora client. Both of us also use Google Voice.
(I also have an old Yahoo web mail account, but since they don’t support client apps for free, I only give that email address for website registration and other spammers.)

From what I’ve seen so far, Google remains far ahead for web-based services. This is not to minimize the advantages Microsoft and Apple have for their locked in proprietary client customers.

A few years ago, Google and MS were warring over providing hosted mail and office apps to the 23-campus California State University system, America’s largest university system. Google won and at SJSU we were migrated in mid-2010..

However, before that the SJSU business school was an Exchange shop, as was my previous b-school and my current employer. So despite being a Mac user since 1984, I was forced to deal with Mac/Exchange interoperability issues (which as much better than when I was researching my dissertation 15 years ago).

Microsoft Outlook Web Services are not very impressive so far. The web client seems slower than the old MS web app.

It was terrible — absolute pits — for explaining how to configure a 3rd party client (cellphone or whatever). First off, can’t find that help starting from scratch in the online help. I could only find it because my employer provided a link. Secondly, they don't publish their POP/IMAP/SMTP server settings on a web page like normal web services. Apparently the settings are client-specific (which suggests their DNS load balancing technology is inferior to Google’s) Third, if (after logging in) you want to find the mail settings, the steps are so complicated that they want you to watch a video. Since I was on a lousy airport WiFi connection, I figure out how to get through the various windows (also buried in their web page) to find the answer.

On the Apple front, the iCloud migration is going badly. Mac.com and Me.com supported Internet standards, but iCloud deletes POP support and their IMAP implementation is incompatible with my wife’s Eudora client. So we are stuck on webmail until we find a replacement for the client or iCloud.

Meanwhile, Google has a huge lead in features and design. The gmail server supports all the protocols, multiple desktop and mobile clients. And if you find the mail server or client too limiting, you can forward to any other server.

Yes, Apple is going to get me.com customers from their iPad lead and iPhone sales, and Microsoft is going to pick up all the firms that run all-Microsoft shops. But if an IT manager is try to pick the best solution, Google seems to be winning both on its execution and its standards-based approach (allowing third-party integration).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Internet revisionism

At a campaign stop last week in Virginia, the president said

The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
He also made some other controversial remarks on the role of government in a capitalist economy, but I just want to fact check these two sentences.

Yes, nothing "gets invented on its own." It takes people to do that, whether individuals or quasi-permanent groupings working in an organization who (under US law) are people too (and have been since Roman days). And it’s also true that a complex systems architecture — of which the Internet is the most complex — requires coordination of the distributed efforts of a large number of people.

But who did the inventing? To me, “government research” implies “government researchers” when it was actually university and corporate researchers. Yes, much of this research was government-funded research, including most of the research in the 1960s and 1970s.

The definitive first-hand account of the creation of the Internet was published in 1997 in the leading US computing journal. It said
  • An MIT professor, J. C. R. Licklider, conceived of a "galactic network” in 1962 [although other accounts say he was then a vice president of BBN, an MIT spinoff company]. He then went to ARPA, the DoD’s advanced research funding agency
  • An MIT graduate student, Len Kleinrock, wrote a paper about packet switching in 1961
  • An MIT [Lincoln Labs] researcher, Lawrence Roberts, set up the wide area network (over a dialup line) in 1965 and then in 1966 went to ARPA and proposed the ARPANET. [Wikipedia says in 1971 he went on to found Telnet in 1971, a packet switching common carrier].
  • The switches that made the ARPANET possible were built by BBN, and Kleinrock (then at UCLA) got the first one in 1969.
  • The Network Working Group [a small group of university and nonprofit software engineers] developed a spec for the first host-to-host communication standard in 1970
  • In 1972, Ray Tomlinson of BBN wrote the first e-mail program.
  • (D)ARPA funded a spec for TCP, which was implemented by Berkeley in Unix
  • Connecting more than one machine at a given site was made possible by Ethernet, invented by Xerox PARC [and then sold as hardware by companies like 3Com.]
  • The domain name system was created at USC.
  • In 1985, the NSF created a second network, NSFNET, which would serve universities, not just the DoD and DoD contractors — and then defunded it in 1995, forcing it find its own way to self-finance.
  • Leadership of the Internet passed to self-organizing [formal or informal] nonprofit entities, including the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Engineering Steering Group and the World-Wide Web Consortium. [Starting in the 1990s, most of the resources for these entities were provided by corporations and universities using their own funds]
So yes, it took a village to create the Internet, and the ball would not have been started rolling without ARPA’s sustained funding over many years. But the actual work of designing and building the Internet was not done by the government, but for the government by smart people that it picked.

Then there is the question of what happened after the ARPA-designed data pipes were in place. An independent account by David Mowery and Tim Simcoe of Berkeley wrote in 2002:
Adoption of the Internet in the US was encouraged by antitrust and regulatory policies that weakened the market power of established telecommunications firms and aided the emergence of a domestic ISP (Internet Service Provider) industry. The large size of the US domestic market, as well as American firms’ large investments in desktop computing and computer networks, created the conditions for rapid diffusion of the Internet following the introduction of the WWW. “Network effects” created by the scale of the US market and the predominance of English language content also contributed to rapid US standardization and diffusion.

During the late 1990s, the Internet entered a third phase of growth characterized by the development of commercial content and business applications. This phase followed the completion of a long process of infrastructure privatization and a dramatic surge in Internet use associated with the introduction of the WWW. Commercial interest and activity were fueled by the availability of capital from the US venture capital (VC) industry, as well as the strong performance of the US economy.
Mowery would certainly be the first to argue for the importance of government-funded research, but in the end, the Internet would have been little more than a research curiosity (or an internal network for a few universities or DoD sites) without the private investment necessary to grow it into what we have today.

As campaign hyperbole goes, this probably rates only one or two Pinocchios — certainly not a whopper on par with Al Gore claiming he invented the Internet. But I’d hate to think that young people, listening to soundbites, took away from this campaign claim that an omniscient and omnipotent Federal government is how we got the Internet and how we will get similar innovations in the future.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Content owners heading for the guillotine?

The ongoing efforts of Hollywood TV and movie syndicators to extort more money out of distributors and their end customers reminds me a little of the French royalty in the late 18th century. For Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI, things were going on swimmingly — until they weren’t.

If that analogy seems too obscure or overblown, think about the record industry cartel 15 years ago. The six major labels were able to charge whatever they wanted—and then their revenues fell by more than half. People didn’t stop listening to music — but a whole generation stopped pay for recorded music while spending shifted to live concerts (where the publishers can’t extract their vig).

So now Viacom is mad because it can’t get DirecTV to pay $144 million more annually ($7.30 per subscriber) to carry its 26 channels. To put pressure on DirecTV, Viacom set up a Facebook page with snappy clip art featuring its Nickolodeon, Comedy Central, MTV and other characters.

DirecTV set up its own webpage to attack Viacom and, in particular, its bundling strategy requring all or nothing from subscribers. When DirecTV page “Other Ways to Watch” linked to online versions of Viacom content, Viacom took down its Internet content for everyone. (At the risk of mixing metaphors, this reminds me of a hostage-taker who puts a knife to his own throat).

We all know how this is going to end: at some point, the cable and satellite TV distributors will be unable to charge a premium over Internet channels. This means that revenues from distributors will eventually be going down, not up. Content producers will need a new business model: the only way out I can see is that there will be embedded ads and product placement for the content no matter where it is consumed.

On the DirecTV website, CEO Mike White delivers an impassioned speech supporting his side. Or, as the text says

By holding firm in negotiations and disputes, we’ve held our price increases to half of the industry average. Some networks or TV stations are asking for as much as a 300% increase in their monthly rate. Imagine the impact to your bill if we just simply accepted those demands for one network, let alone the hundreds we offer you. There’s a reason DIRECTV has been able to offer our customers the lowest annual rate increase of 4% among all providers over the past two years. We’re always by your side.
As a consumer, I think White isn’t aggressive enough (but if his rivals are accepting cost increases and passing them along, his options are limited).

For the past 10 years, our San Jose home has been served by Comcast basic cable at less than $20/month. When we move to our new home, we’ll take the Cox $25/month teaser rate until it expires, and then at that point drop the cable — possibly adding Dish or DirecTV. During the six month period, we also plan to evaluate whether we can get by with over-the-air supplemented by a monthly subscription to Amazon, Hulu, Netflix or Vudu. We may not even need to pay for the latter, as our teen prefers to watch YouTube video clips over 22-minute TV episodes.

So good luck Mr. White. You’re on the right side of history, even if shareholders may not give you the time to see this through. And a word to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and their Viacom masters: be careful what you wish for, because the French people had a lot more freedom after the old order fell.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Picking a CEO: narcissists need not apply

Narcissism is rampant among high achievers, whether movie starts, business executives or politicians. It seems like the more successful some people get, the more they surround themselves with bootlickers who cater to their ego rather than tell them what they need to hear.

Writing on the HBR blog, executive headhunter Justin Menkes recalls the advice he gave a CEO looking to groom a potential successor from among his high-achieving subordinates.

How do you know when someone can make the leap from high performer to CEO? There is one driving factor that determines the answer: narcissism.

Those selected for development have one universal trait in common: They are by definition high achievers. But there is a difference between those superstar achievers that can make the leap to CEO and those that will implode: To what degree do they feel invigorated by the success and talent of others, and to what degree does the success of others cause an involuntary pinch of insecurity about their own personal inadequacies? Only an individual who feels genuinely invigorated by the growth, development, and success of others can become an effective leader of an enterprise. And it remains the most common obstacle of success for those trying to make that leap.
Menkes has a checklist from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory:
  • Are the individual's relationships with others based on honest, intimate exchanges, or are they formed using a dynamic that regularly reinforces the narcissist's role as a "hero"?
  • Does the individual often talk about how his star qualities make him distinct from his peers?
  • Does he like to be the center of attention?
  • Does the remark, "I insist on getting the respect that is due me," resonate with his worldview?
All of these items play to a twisted egocentrism that assumes the world exists for the benefit of the high achiever. But if eliminating narcissists from consideration is necessary, IMHO it is not sufficient.

A related predictor of failure that I’ve seen time and time again is an insular approach to gathering information, getting advice and making decisions. It seems to be the single best predictor of failure among US presidents — where the raw power being wielded causes senior aides to jealously (and zealously) guard their access. (Cases in point: Nixon, Carter).

So yes, the narcissist has a particularly pathological form of reality denial. But if a leader can’t deal with the world as it is — rather than how he or she imagines it to be — the final outcome is going to be the same.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Twitter's war on partners: strength or weakness?

On Friday, LinkedIn announced it would no longer be distributing Twitter’s (140-character) content. Ryan Roslansky, “head of content products” helpfully pointed out that the policy only applied to content in, not content out: if you start a conversation on LinkedIn, it can be mirrored out to Twitter, but not vice versa.

Roslansky said the three-year collaboration was ended by Twitter, pointing to a blog post by a Twitter product manager entitled “Delivering a consistent Twitter experience” which was described as the nominal reason for the change to cut down on partner access to Twitter’s APIs and content.

Of course, this is brazen dissembling, as with similar claims last summer taking over URL shortening (bypassing bit.ly, tinyurl, etc) was to provide security. Twitter is kicking out partners because it wants control and to my mind that’s both a strength and a weakness.

The strength is that Twitter can do it — so far it’s the only game in town. If it aspires to end-to-end integration ala Google, the more partners it can disintermediate, the better. As with its website redesigns, this allows it to better know what’s going on — unlike the WWW, you can’t read anything on Twitter without signing in (and letting the company know whether you’re searching for Obamacare or Kardashian). If it has shut off LinkedIn, how far behind is Facebook?

At the same time, the increasing integration could also reflect a sign of weakness, specifically its one-trick business model. The only way Twitter makes money is putting eyeballs in front of ads. Any chance to view content away from Twitter is a chance to follow Twitter’s content without Twitter ads. That — and a natural fear of the 800 lb gorilla — is why it cut off Tweets from Google searches.

However, this increasing control has come at the expense of the user experience. I have long used the Tweetie client by Atebits LLC. Twitter bought Atebits, eliminated the client, and replaced it with a defeatured substitute posted to the Mac App Store. The website design also provides me less control of what I see and what I show on my website.

To my mind, this strategy is begging for competition. Twitter is gambling that nobody can knock it off the hill: the (direct) switching costs are low, but the network effects are huge. Google is certainly trying, but so far it’s not gaining traction and if Google doesn’t have the content (and customers) to displace Twitter, who does?

In the end, Twitter may become for me a write-only medium: I’ll give Twitter free content (that supports my blog and professional career) but not read content there. I suppose we both make out from the deal, but — like any other cranky old-timer — I’ll now and again remark how Twitter was once a useful news service back in the good ol’ days (when I walked 5 miles to grade school through the San Diego snow).