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 

Cool or Fool?

Some time ago I wrote a post about the Apple Brand Promise where I proposed that the magic of Steve Jobs was making his customers feel cool for buying his products.  I still think people buy Apple products because of the way it changes how others view them.  People feel cool when holding an Apple device and not because it makes them more productive or smarter and clearly not richer, but because the Apple brand promise says cool people buy Apple devices.

Cool is almost impossible to fake, and there is no formula for becoming cool.  Just ask any rock band, super model, or San Francisco restaurant owner -- cool is as impossible to predict as stock price.  

Cool is also impossible to copy.  Fake Rolex watches will never be cool.  No one is going to remember the band that tried to be like A Flock of Seagulls.

Those who have been touched by the ferry godmother of cool all know down deep that the chances of becoming cool are about the same as winning the lottery.  Feel lucky if you win, but don't start thinking it was because you deserved it.

Which brings us to Microsoft.  Microsoft makes people productive and enables them to keep more of their money in their pockets.  It is rare that one feels cool with a Microsoft product, but who cares!  I will take smart over cool any day.  Smart matters, smart is lasting, people who are smart got there on more than the luck of the draw.  The Microsoft brand promise should be associated with smart -- not cool.

I think many of us have lost track of what the Microsoft Brand Promise is.  If you know, feel free to post a reply.  

When using W8 the other day (I mostly use W7), I did not feel smart or cool!



Sales Incentives, Can't Seem to Live With or Without Them

Steve Jobs talked about the balance between product design and sales/marketing (as recounted in the Walter Isaacson biography) where he describes the arc of company evolution from great product creation to an over dependence on sales and marketing.  The latter being the death of great technology companies like IBM and Xerox.  Jeff Bezos is famous for saying that advertising is for companies that don't have good products.  Of course neither sentiment is completely true.  Great products still need sales and marketing and advertising is often a necessary tool employed to drive demand for a great product. 

In my post Market Like an Engineer I proposed that people running marketing departments should encourage the virtues often found in an engineering culture in their marketing departments.  The desire to create something truly new, the open sharing of knowledge, and the pursuit of critical customer feedback is often missing in the sales and marketing culture.  These virtues suffer when the prevailing mindset is that salespeople are coin operated. 

Over compensating on revenue drives out collaboration and the pursuit of the truth.  Executives are forever tweaking compensation models to discourage these behaviors.  Nevertheless, we regularly see glowing departmental revenue reports that merely chronicle a shift in revenue recognition from one department to another, or the quarterly selection of the "good" numbers cherry picked from pools of mediocre performance.  It is just as common for the company to pay big bonuses the next quarter when this phantom revenue shows up in yet another department -- even though overall sales have not increased at all.  It is no wonder leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos want to spend as little as possible on sales and marketing.  Those crazy incentives seem like they always produce unintended consequences, but at the same time seem essential for creating action.

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.

Be Insanely Great -- or Go Home

Steve Jobs was widely considered one of the best salespeople ever.  Who else could have sold the music industry on iTunes?  However, he also recognized the downside of too much dependence on salespeople: Here he describes it to Walter Isaacson:

…The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company. John Akers at IBM was a smart, eloquent, fantastic salesperson, but he didn’t know anything about product. The same thing happened at Xerox. When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off.

Google also does salespeople differently. Here is a great post from Charlie Warner describing the differences.    Like Apple, Google seems to recognize that salespeople are important, but all companies have to work to ensure that the salespeople do not steal all of the oxygen at the company.

Salesforce.com spends half of its revenue on sales and marketing.  They also spend very little on R&D.  Here is a post I did comparing sales to R&D spending at the leading technology firms.

I think all customers are in one of two states.  They either believe that the product or service they are getting is unbelievably great, or they believe there must be something better out there.  Every company should employ this measure of customer satisfaction.  The danger is to think that the customer is happy because they are still paying the invoice.  There are many customers who do not complain, but are still looking for an insanely great solution.  When they find it, they will not go to their current vendor and say:  do you want to compete to keep my business?  They just leave.  

Products must be insanely great to compete in the marketplace. 

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In 1990 Michael Lewis wrote his now famous book: Liars Poker. His intent was to expose the bad behavior of people on Wall Street and help to bring an end to the steady stream of our best and brightest wasting their abilities in a parasitic business. To his surprise, his book just added fuel to the fire and all of these years later we still lose bright and motivated and capable minds to the pit of greed.

This 571 page book reads like a 200 page book because it is well researched and well written and the subject is familiar to all of us. I read it on my iPad -- a device I did not know I needed until after I got it and that I spend several hours a day with now. In fact, I am writing this review on my iPad.

It will be interesting to see how history views Walter Isaacson's latest master work: Steve Jobs. Of course everyone is talking about it and I have put some links to other reviews below. The common thread in the commentary about the book is to marvel at the fact that even though his own life was shaped by his adoption, Steve Jobs was still able to abandon his own daughter. The barefoot thing, the diet thing, and the personal hygiene thing also seemed to get a fair amount of attention.

To me the biggest question posed by the book is whether Steve Jobs was successful despite his narcissism, or because of it. This is the central question because a great many young entrepreneurs are right now reading the book and getting ready to emulate Steve Jobs. I hope they are learning to operate at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology, and to have an uncompromising focus on design and quality. I fear they may be encouraged to put themselves in the absolute center of their universe and make everyone else feel less than adequate. Will this book encourage the next generation to belittle co-workers, send food back at restaurants, and put themselves before their own children?

I have said before that I believe Steve Jobs was the best CEO we have ever seen. There is no question that he created amazing products and a company that will not only survive, but will thrive for years -- just by coasting on the lead he built before is death.
The pain he inflicted on those that loved him was also of epic scale. At the end, he knew he was dying, and even then, he could not connect with his daughters. I hope that legacy is forgotten.

Here are my take aways from the book:

  1. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is real and Steve Jobs had it.
  2. A passion for simplicity and quality has to start at the top.
  3. Leadership makes a big difference.

Here are other reviews of the book:

I hope that 20 years from now we look back and find many companies built by young people that were inspired by Steve's passion for great products and design. It would be even better if they learned how to do that by building up the people around them.

Dave Winer and Steve Jobs

Yesterday I wrote about how much respect I had for Keith Richards regard for his heroes -- particularly once most of his contemporaries were worshiping themselves.  On the theme of heroes, and not on my being Keith Richards but rather following his example, here are two of mine:

Dave Winer:  A cantankerous techie who has returned to New York for yet another chapter of his career. If you are not already a follower, there is a pretty good page about him on Wikipedia here.  His blog Scripting, and his podcast Rebooting the News with Jay Rosen are two that I follow, but he has done/is doing so much (see the links on his Scripting blog).  I have never met him, but would thoroughly enjoy a beer and a lively discussion about tech -- particularly on his self removal from the middle of the circle in Silicon Valley to foster the growth of a new circle in NYC.  

Steve Jobs:  I am hardly the first guy to say that Steve Jobs is a hero.  His work over the past 14 years at Apple says alot of it.  Not that market cap is a true indicator of value, but here is a chart of the stock VS the NASDAQ since his return in 1997.



I imagine a moment when Steve is looking at prototypes of the iPod Touch, to this day I think it is the most amazing of his amazing machines, sometime in 2006 deciding on the size, what to have in or out, the fine points of the form factor...  Mine lasted for three years, the third of which I was often heard marveling about how I used it every day and the magic was still there.  The guy has a passion for what he does.  Unbelievable.

Upon meeting him I would ask:  have you ever hung out with Keith Richards?


Later:  Links added and if you want to hear one of the best podcasts ever, listen to yesterday's Rebooting the news with Dave Winer, Jay Rosen, and Doc Searls (guest).  There are some podcasts that I skim through at 2X, this one I am going to listen to twice.


Missed It By That Much

Product designers live in a cruel world.  The distance between delightful and disaster is very small, but like an egg balanced on the peak of a roof, it only takes a fraction of an inch to be rolling the wrong way.  I have had a Droid X for a few months now and there is no doubt it is a well engineered device and that Android is a viable operating system.  Unfortunately for Google and Motorola, it is not a delight to use. 

I don’t have an iPhone, but I do have an iPod Touch and it is a delight to use.  I first got it in 2007 and it still just feels good when I pick it up.  I rarely ever find myself staring at it without knowing how to do what I want to do.  Even after three years I am still regularly amazed by the elegance of its design.

This is the mastery of Steve Jobs and he is so very far ahead of everyone else.  If you want to be inspired, read this great blog post about Steve Jobs and Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid.

The idea is that great designs already exist in the universe and people like Steve Jobs and Edwin Land discover them.  

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.

Steve Jobs at D8

Steve Jobs was the big feature at the All Things Digital conference yesterday.  He was humble about the market cap thing: “It’s surreal, but it doesn’t really mean anything” and about Apple itself: “Apple is a company that doesn’t have the most resources in the world, and the way we’ve succeeded is to bet the right technological horse, to look at technologies that have a future. We try to pick things that are in their springs. And if you choose wisely, you can be quite successful.” And he did not take the bait on war with Microsoft: “No, we don’t see ourselves in a platform war” says Jobs. “We never saw ourselves in a platform war with Microsoft, either…Maybe that’s why we lost. But we never thought of ourselves in a platform war; we just wanted to make good products.” or on war with Google: “Well, they’re competing with us...we didn’t go into search.”  

There is a really interesting riff on the development path that brought about the iPhone and eventually the iPad: 

Jobs: “I’ll tell you a secret. It began with the tablet. I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display you could type on with your fingers. I asked our people about it. And six months later, they came back with this amazing display. And I gave it to one of our really brilliant UI guys. He got scrolling working and some other things, and I thought, ‘my God, we can build a phone with this!’ So we put the tablet aside, and we went to work on the iPhone.”

This just emphasizes how Jobs has the metal to make big decisions and make them decisively.  There have been a lot of these big decisions lately including Flash of course, and the market is being shaped and reshaped by Steve Jobs yet again.  This shaping will continue with Steve pulling for newspapers over bloggers: “I don’t want us to see us descend into a nation of bloggers,” civility and control over openness: “We have a rule that says you can’t defame people,” and his own curating of ideas: “The best ideas have to win, no matter who has them.”

Steve Jobs is still the best CEO in existence.  Quite a performance.

Steve and Steve at WWDC 2010?

Barrons reports that Steve Ballmer may be scheduled to make a guest appearance during Steve Job's keynote at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 7, 2010.  This would be quite a thing, the nature of the announcement is that Microsoft is positioning Visual Studio 2010 as the tool to write native apps for the iPhone and iPad. 

I don't remember the battle for developer mindshare ever having been quite this fierce.  Apple has done a good job over the past few years of turning its developer partners into selling (Go To Market) partners.  If this rumor is true, then Apple will have made a very interesting play to turn Microsoft's development partners into Apple's GTM partners.

I am having a hard time envisioning how this benefits Microsoft.  Sure there will be more VS2010 licenses sold, but VS developers fueling the Apple App Store?  Maybe the carrot of VS built apps easily transferable to become Win Phone 7 Apps is big enough to justify the risk of long term developer partner erosion.  Well, June 7 will definitely be an interesting day.

Maybe Steve B will lift the ban on iPhones on the MS campus!


The Ultimate Walled Garden

I spent some time yesterday at Disneyland – the ultimate physical walled garden.  I can only marvel at Disney’s success in controlling every part of the experience.  From the music playing everywhere to the delicate balance of the wait times, to the happy and helpful staff, to the cleanliness, to the renewal found in the new additions, it is hard not to be impressed.

Of course none of this compares to the impressive marketing effort that brought me here for the fourth time since my girls were born – and manages to fill the park just about every day of the year.

Later this spring I am taking the girls to New York City – the ultimate open environment.  My mind is full of all of the potential contrasts – and I can hardly wait to hear what they think.

I was relieved that my girls elected to go to the beach today instead of back to Disneyland.  I have not deciphered their reasons for not going back, but here are mine for being relieved:

  1. Coffee:  For some reason Nescafe has the exclusive for coffee in the park.  I do enjoy good coffee and being in an environment where it cannot be found at any price is downright disorienting.
  2. Pricing:  The pay at the gate, wait in line, pricing construct is a highly complex business case to be sure.  Once in the gate we pay for rides with our time and the purveyors offer rides at a level that I suspect is just sufficient to prevent the customers from resorting to violence.  In the seven hours we were in the park we got in 9 rides (about 5 mins duration each), waited in line about half an hour each, and consumed one meal of unremarkable quality, and got a fair amount of exercise walking around.
  3. Recommend it?  Strangely yes – as long as your kids are 10 or under.  Mine are 10 and 12, so I don’t think we will be back.

So what?  The connection between Disneyland and Steve Jobs is hard to miss.  Pixar is everywhere in the park these days and Steve Jobs is in fact the largest shareholder in Disney.  The Apple customer experience is the Disneyland walled garden of computing.  The iPad looks like it will be building another layer of bricks on the wall and the growing rift with Google and Amazon leads me to believe this trend will continue. 

I recently replaced all of the Macs in our house with PCs – mostly in response to Apple’s efforts to control every part of the experience. 

It will be interesting to see if the Apple marketing machine continues to keeps its park as full as Disneyland does.  

Two Big Speakers this Week

Two of the most iconic figures of our time took the stage this week. To someone who has been a student of public speaking since I took my first public speaking class in the 9th grade I am bound to find the performances interesting regardless of the content or context.  Add to this my interest in both technology and our nation and Wednesday was quite a day.

Steve Jobs Introduces the iPad

Technophiles and ordinary citizens alike are all hoping this is not the last new product presentation we get from Steve Jobs. His gifts are many and to see them on display is a thrill. He himself has raised the bar so high with the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone that it seemed almost impossible for him to deliver yet another home run. Of course only time will tell on the success of the iPad but and I found the presentation to be short of my own expectations.

He did not help his credibility when he massaged the numbers to position Apple as the largest mobile devices company in the world. Comparing all of Apple's forward looking revenues to just the current mobile devices revenues of Sony, Samsung, and Nokia does not hold up to event the dimmest scrutiny. This illuminated the fact that he was really speaking to the already converted and I find that the underlying fabric of the whole presentation and product.

There were many references to how the iPad will interact with existing Apple products. This emphasizes the closed nature of the Apple environment, and with their own chip, the porting of existing iWork apps, the exclusion of flash, and the extension of iTunes into iBooks -- this is putting another layer of bricks on the wall around the Apple community. The fans are going to love it, but the product is not cool enough to be the catalyst to new conversions from other platforms.

Ahead of the announcement some had speculated that the device and deals with content partners would save the TV industry. It appears that was never part of the vision for the product. Featuring the NY Times was nice but incremental -- no revolution there. As a gaming platform bigger is better, but gamers are not going to make this their main device -- so I don't really see that as a big change either.

In the end I did not think Steve really was wowed by the product either. If they have sold 250 million iPods -- they clearly will sell tens of millions of these things. But the primary motivation will be for one Apple fan to tell another Apple fan that they have it.

I will get into my thoughts about the Apple upgrade cycle some other day, but that is another reason to not buy the iPad now. Apple will continue to innovate on the platform and 12 months from now the new version will be cooler, cheaper, and maybe not even backwards compatible with this one.

Regarding killing the Kindle -- since Steve proclaimed that ALL iPhone apps work out of the box on the iPad -- that means that anyone buying the iPad can read their Kindle books on the Kindle App for the iPhone. This is great news for Amazon. Amazon has never been a hardware company and I bet they make much higher margins on the books than the Kindle device. So iPad could mean more Kindle book sales for Amazon. Also, Jeff Bezos will be off the hook with the publishers now that Apple is in the biz. So I don't think the Amazon people are going to be unhappy about this.

President Obama Calls it Like it is

It has been quite a year for the President. The vitriol between the parties has left everyone diminished and the independents in between seem to jump back and forth every day. It will be years before we understand how the decisions made by our well intentioned President re-shape our universe. Getting out of the financial crisis by turning from bank regulator to bank owner, and getting out of the war by putting more of our people in harms way, are hard things to explain even when over half the members of the choir are your own.

The good parts came when the President focussed our attention on the reason we need to make changes: The "How long should we wait? How long should America put its future on hold? ...I do not accept second-place for the United States of America." sequence hit the target right in the middle. All of the references to the things we are going to do -- particularly those laced with details like forgiving student loans in 20 or 10 years or $20 billion in savings in government spending next year -- do not resonate at all because we are skeptical about our government's ability to do anything. With the possible exception of sending tax dollars to special interest groups on Wall Street and the Pharmaceutical companies -- there is very little evidence that our government can do anything.

One year into his term, the repeated claim that the problems were not created on his watch, were tiresome and hurt his credibility.

Our President did rise to the occasion however and he showed his resolve calling out the "Deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works." His proposal to put all earmarks on the web is bold and would be a big step in the right direction. His willingness to get some of the mud on himself by calling out the broken nature of our political process is great leadership. President Obama believes that the government can do good work. He has called out the bad stuff, committed himself to do something about it, and I believe his intentions are honorable.

We should not give up hope and all of us should do what we can to contribute to his success.