JCL Blog

Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Despite the many tellings, this is still a great story. Even though we have all read about the people who brought computing to life and the people who made the most of it, Walter Isaacson tells the story again very well. Somehow he threads between the tedium of an often told tale, and the urge to skip the detail because it is an old story. He gives us all of the detail and then some and it does not seem tired at all.

All of the familiar names are there from Lovelace, Babbage, and Turing, to Gates, Allen, Jobs and Woz. In between he brings out some that we have not heard from as much including Atanasoff and Grace Hopper. While engrossed in this account of the coming of the information age, there were a couple of things that I wanted to remember:

  1. New things take a long time to happen: Zuckerberg is really just finishing a job that Stuart Brand started.
  2. Moore's Law is still going and makes yesterday's crazy idea possible tomorrow.
  3. AI is never going to happen, but that does not mean that computers will stop getting smarter, its just that they will not get smart in a human way.
  4. The new new thing becomes a thing when all of the parts have been invented.

For real professional reviews, here are the big names:

Washington Post

 Wall Street Journal

New York Times 

Solving the Tablet Puzzle

When I was a kid my mom taught me how to solve puzzles.  She said to find the corners first, then the edge pieces, then assemble the frame, then sort the pieces by color...  It was a sound process and surely was easier than randomly picking one of the 500 pieces out of the box and trying to figure out where it went.  From that experience I learned that solving the puzzle depended heavily on the sequence.

It is interesting to see how the four big players in tablets computers:  Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are each approaching their complex puzzles.  Just like doing puzzles with my mom, the sequence is everything.

The first entrant into the market was Microsoft - over a decade ago.  Bill Gates was correct that tablets were going to be big.  We now know that his vision was extraordinary.  Unfortunately, he was pulling one piece out of the box and there was really no hope of fitting it in with the other pieces.

Meanwhile, Steve Jobs was laying down the corners and the frame of his puzzle with the iPod.  It was a simple but amazing device that enabled users to do one thing:  carry 1,000 songs in their pocket.  At the time the next best solution held only 10 songs.  Then the iPod lead to the iPhone, the iPod Touch, all those apps and app developers, and finally the iPad.  That final puzzle piece was easy to place in the picture because so many other pieces were in place already.

At the same time, Amazon was creating an amazing shopping experience for books and everything else in the universe on its web site.  By the time it introduced the Kindle (same time as the iPhone in 2007) its puzzle was pretty well formed too.  The Kindle put hundreds of books in your pocket and there really was not another alternative.

Just after that, in 2008, Google introduced its Android Operating System and the Chrome Browser.  This story is a bit more complicated because Android was started outside of Google in 2003 and acquired by Google in 2005.  Either way, the Google puzzle was being assembled well before the Samsung Galaxy Tab was introduced in late 2010.  Add the proliferation of Android devices, 400,000 apps, and by the time we arrive at yesterday's announcement of the Nexus 7 a great deal of the Google tablet puzzle had been filled in.

It is true that there were a billion personal computers already running Microsoft operating systems when Bill Gates introduced his tablet in 2002.  Surely that would form up the Microsoft puzzle. Right? So why does it seem like Microsoft is just now pulling out the first puzzle piece with the Surface and holding it over a blank table?  Because Microsoft is trying to start a whole new consumer puzzle -- and all of its existing puzzle pieces make up an enterprise picture.  Yes we use the Windows OS at home -- but it has not created any more of an ecosystem than Phoenix BIOS -- which we all run at home too.

It is going to be tough for Microsoft to complete its consumer tablet puzzle.  The Surface may end up being a great device, it may get a great response from Microsoft's enterprise customers.  But it is going to be hard to put the pieces together for consumers.




Tale of Two Conferences

I was fortunate enough to attend two Cloud Computing conferences today.  They were right next door to each other in Seattle, one at the Sheraton (CloudFair2012) and the other at the Convention Center (Cloud Intelligence Conference).  It was an interesting study in the current state of tech marketing because the CloudFair was dominated by Google and the Could Intelligence Conference by Microsoft.  While it is not really fair to make a full comparison because I could only attend part of each (the CloudFair is in the workshop day of a three day conference and the Cloud Intelligence Conference was only a one day thing), it was a great way to see the contrast between how Google and Microsoft reach out to their markets differently.

The experience reminded me of the great exchange between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs at the All Things D conference in 2007 where Walt Mossberg asked them what they appreciated most about each other and Steve said that he admired Bills ability to partner, and Bill said he wished he had Steve’s sense of style.  Two great companies, two completely different approaches.  The same can be said for Google and Microsoft.  Microsoft still knows partners and Google’s “style” is to turn as many of its engineers into marketers as possible.

Microsoft Knows Partners

At the Cloud Intelligence Conference, the speakers were mostly talking about Microsoft Azure and Office 365, and most of the speakers were not from Microsoft, but partners of Microsoft that help Microsoft customers run their Microsoft products.  These partners are formidable companies in themselves, and some have products that integrate closely with Microsoft’s offerings.  The speakers were talented, had a great deal to contribute and were not just pitching their own services.  Since just about every company has Microsoft in its IT infrastructure somewhere, it is a given that the audience were already Microsoft customers.  The presenters took advantage of this fact and were helping Microsoft customers see what was on the way to them from the mothership.  The negative of this approach was that the audience did not feel that they were getting the inside view into Microsoft, and there was a bit of a theme of ‘yes we are keeping up with the cool kids’.  Neither of these is going to push customers off of a platform already through their organizations.

Google Is Not Evil and Engineers are Not Marketers

Google as a company defines itself by declaring what it is not (evil) and continues that method with Google engineers declaring they are engineers and not marketers.  These guys were great speakers, very knowledgeable, easy to listen to, and clearly passionate about Google products.  In addition, and in contrast to Microsoft, they did a good job of letting the audience get a sense for the inside Google perspective.  Developers do like that kind of thing a lot.  The talks were clearly aimed right at the users with no reference to partners or how a partner could use this technology to take better care of its clients.  It is very possible that there were partners in the audience that were going to do just that.  It was interesting that the Google guys were both published authors and took the opportunity to plug their books.  I suppose this could be a result of Google’s culture of academia (where college professors are always writing and plugging their books).  It was a bit ironic however, because they did say they were not going to try to sell the audience anything, well except their books.

Great change only happens when innovation makes things 10 times better.  Clearly the tools available to businesses through the cloud are at least 10 times better, so this is going to be a time of great change and it is hard not to be excited about it.  It will be interesting to continue to observe these two great companies build their tools and their markets.  Along the way Microsoft will surprise everyone and innovate, and Google may even surprise themselves and do some marketing.

The New Microsoft

The departures at Microsoft have hit a point where local journalists are starting to produce lists.  Nick Eaton at the PI has this great list with dozens of links, and Sharon Pian Chan at the Times has another one here.  Whether or not there is a wizard behind the curtain with some kind of a grand plan, change is on its way.  This kind of turnover guarantees that a new Microsoft is being formed.  A company with 90,000 employees will never be a blank canvas, but new ideas must be working their way into places that have not seen new ideas for a while.

Into this mix we add Paul Allen with his memoir out this week and a less than flattering account of early scheming by Bill Gates.  This will keep Microsoft in the news for a while and start a whole new avalanche of What Microsoft Should Do articles.  This does not take much prodding however.  People have been telling Microsoft what to do for so long that advice sounds like the din of the cars going by on HWY 520.  People suggest that they bring back Bill Gates, fire Ballmer, and ask if Microsoft is still relevant so often that if you want to make a suggestion, just get in line.

In an attempt to avoid adding to the cast of advice noisemakers, I am going to make a prediction or three about Microsoft’s future.  Sure you could say that these predictions are thinly veiled suggestions – after all, the answers on Jeopardy are really the questions.  Either way here are three thoughts.

The Enterprise

Some think this is the name of the ship on Star Trek, but that would be the “Starship Enterprise”.  Others may think of the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, but that would be the “USS Enterprise”.  Those of us in technology marketing think of the Enterprise as bigger businesses who still control 72% of all technology spending.  A very large part of that spending still goes to Microsoft.  Microsoft knows the Enterprise and even without much innovation - it will take decades to blow that lead.  They cannot coast forever, but I think it is a lot like the USS Enterprise which has to refuel its reactors every 20 years.


Most of Microsoft’s success in the Enterprise is a result of its ability to sell through channel partners.  No one has the partner reach that Microsoft has with its over 600,000 channel partners.  These companies, ranging from big consultancies like Accenture to Joe’s Computers next door, make their living selling Microsoft’s products and the services required to keep them going.  Salesforce.com has been spending 50% of its revenue for ten years trying to make a dent in Microsoft’s dominance in this area.  Admittedly Salesforce.com’s $1 billion in revenue is a dent.  But as soon as Salesforce.com stops spending over $700 million in sales and marketing every year – then what?


Microsoft knows more about security than anyone.  Microsoft has legions of very smart people evaluating and responding to attacks on Windows and releasing patches every week.  Right now consumers willingly trade their privacy for “free” services.  Consumers don’t care if Google reads their emails and Facebook analyzes their relationships because there has not been security Pearl Harbor yet.  It is coming and when it does, consumers may reconsider.  The galvanizing event does not have to be a municipal power grid take over by terrorists.  It could easily be convictions for treason based on private emails and Facebook updates that consumers thought they deleted, but lived on in the cloud and were accessed by law enforcement and a Committee Against Un-American Activities.  Sound crazy? What about kidnappers, bounty hunters, stalkers, or even paparazzi accessing mobile carrier databases and hunting people by electronic data trail?

Change is on its way at Microsoft and I think many people are going to be surprised.

Bill Says Steve has Taste, and Steve Says Bill can Partner

In my quest to figure out what is happening in the computer business I have been thinking a good deal about how we got here.  In two separate conversations in less than a week friends have pointed me back to the 2007 All Things Digital conference where Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal interviewed Steve Jobs and Bill Gates together.  The whole thing is available on YouTube here.  There are many fine moments, but if you want to cut to the best one, go to 3:30 of part 11.  Where an audience member has just asked what they had learned from each other and Bill Gates says:  "Oh I would give a lot to have Steve's taste."  He then goes on to eloquently summarize the magic of Steve Jobs all in a couple of sentences.  

The focus moves to Steve and he talks about Microsoft's skill at partnering: "Bill and Microsoft were really good at it." and Steve further explains how Apple didn't need to think that way because they were building the "whole banana" and Microsoft needed to be good at it because they needed partners to succeed.  This could not be more true today.  While a fair amount has transpired in the three years since this interview was taped, the basic facts are as the two founders said on that day:  Apple has taste and Microsoft knows how to partner.

There has been all kinds of news out of the Microsoft Worldwide Partner conference this week about how Microsoft is going to leverage its partner ecosystem to be the biggest player in the cloud and other areas.  I don't think anyone could have said it better than Bill and Steve did in 2007.


The entire hour is very much worth watching and amazingly revealing about post PC devices, tablets, social media, multiple screens -- all the stuff we are talking about today.  Check it out.

Lessons from IBM

I pointed out the other day that IBM's stock outperformed Google's over the past 4 year period.  There are many things we can learn from the granddaddy of all technology companies.  In its 130 year history, IBM has had more "eras" than most tech companies have had years.  In fact, IBM tangled with the Justice Department before Bill Gates was even born.

The one thing that has always impressed me about IBM is how they seem to be playing on an entirely different level than anyone else.  Real companies count on IBM to give them real solutions to real business problems.  Every time I find myself in a conversation with a senior exec at IBM I am reminded that they have managed to continue to operate at this level regardless of the headlines of the day.  

Somehow I just don't see IBM burning R and D budget on a Twitter clone.

Curiously, IBM also does a great job with its ads.  They come up with fun and memorable ways to make the point that they are serious about business.  Here is my favorite one: which is probably 10 years old now but it still resonates.