ScratchJr – programming for kids 5-7 – Fully Funded: yay!

ScratchJr UI

I’m absolutely delighted to report that ScratchJr – a tablet based system that teaches 5-7 year old kids how to program – duly hit its $80,000 funding goal just after bids closed on Kickstarter. With that, we have a version for the Apple iPad and a version for Android Tablets this year, and work is now underway to produce the associated teaching curriculum aids and materials.

Just waiting to get news of the ScratchJr t-shirt I get in exchange for my $45 contribution (which went via Amazon Payments as soon as the end date and successful funding level had been reached). I’ll order one in a size that should fit our 2-year old Granddaughter (and iPad Mini user) Ruby.

Full text of the announcement from the Project Lead Mitchel Resnick here.

If you haven’t seen it, I thoroughly recommend watching the video there. It’s an absolute delight to see kids so young speaking so authoritatively about the projects they have created on this platform at such a young age. The next step is to get Primary School teachers in the UK engaged with this; running something like the Education work we executed at Demon Internet (which got free and useful materials into over 95% of UK Secondary Schools for a cost of £50,000, plus £10,000 for associated competition prizes) would be fantastic, though mindful that there are many more primary schools than secondary ones here.

Three year lease, including support, insurance and warranty, for a tablet costs parents or their schools circa £10 per month over that term for an iPad Mini class device. Whether or not kids end up programming, it nevertheless gives them all sorts of other logic/sequencing skills applicable to a wide number of career options later in their lives.

ScratchJr in Use by Pupil

The older sibling product Scratch, the excellent Sugarlabs work (also being implemented on tablets) and Raspberry Pi also have a solid place, albeit slightly higher up the age range.

So, a gift well worth giving in my humble opinion. And kudos to the ScratchJr team for giving us a platform to fire up the imagination of kids from an even earlier age than before.



“OK Google. Where did I park my car?”

Google Now "Where did I Park my Car?" CardThere appears to be a bit of controversy with some commentators learning exactly what “Favorite Locations” are, as stored by every iPhone handset. What happens is that the number of visits to common locations are recorded, from which, based on time spans and days of week, Apple can deduce your “normal” working location and the address at which you sleep most nights. This is currently stored only in your iPhone handset and apparently not yet used; it is designed to enable services to advise you of traffic conditions to and from work, to be used at some point in the future.

The gut reaction is “Whey! They can see exactly where i’m going all the time!”. Well, yes, your handset can; GPS co-ordinates are usually good for an approx location to a meter or two, you have a compass in there that indicates which way you’re facing, and various accelerometers that can work out the devices orientation in 3 dimensions. The only downside is that the full mix tends to be heavy on battery power, and hence currently used by applications on the phone fairly sparingly.

Some privacy concerns then started to arise. However, I thought it was fairly common knowledge that mobile phone operators (certainly in the USA) could deduce the locations of spectators as being inside a sports stadium, and tell the stadium owners the basic demographics of people present, and the locations from which they travelled to the event. This sort of capability will extend to low power bluetooth beacons which can be positioned in retail outlets, which armed with a compatible application (and your permission to share your data), will give them analysis gold. Full coverage, 365 days a year, to a level that doesn’t need Paco Underhill class analysis (Paco is the author of seminal book “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping“, itself based on years of analysis of customer behaviour in and around retail establishments).

I think i’m fairly cool with it all. Google Android handsets can already sense internally whether you are walking, cycling, on a bus or driving in a car. The whole premise of Google Now is to do searches or to provide service to you before you have to explicitly ask for it. I got quite used to my Nexus phone routinely volunteering commute traffic conditions before I got in my car, or to warn me to leave earlier to hit an appointment in time given current driving (or bus service) conditions on the route I usually took. I was also very impressed when I walked past a bus stop in Reading and Google Now flashed up the eta and destination of the next bus, and a summary of the timetable for buses leaving from that stop.

Google have just released another card on Google Now that automatically notes where you parked your car, and navigates you back to it if you feel the need for it to do so later on.

All of this is done with your explicit permission, and one of the nice things on Android is that if the software vendors data policies change in any way, it will not allow through the update to enable that functionality without explicitly asking you for permission first. Hence why I knocked LinkedIn off my Nexus 5 when they said an update would enable them to collect my phone call data of who I was calling and receiving calls from. I thought that was unnecessary for the service I receive (and pay for) from them.

The location services i’m sharing with a small number of vendors are already returning great benefit to me. If that continues, and service providers are only intrusive enough to help deliver a useful service to me, then i’m happy to share that data. If you don’t want to play, that’s also your call. What’s not to like?

Blockchain: the ultimate and positive chaotic disruption

Light Bulb Lit Up

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet“. Those were the words of Tim O’Reilly, owner of O’Reilly, producer of many of the definitive books on software systems and associated conferences. His company’s Radar blog is also noteworthy for it’s excellent peeks into the future of high technology related products and services. One subject seems to pass it by, and I can’t help think the implications are much more significant than people really comprehend yet; that of the technology that sits behind Bitcoin (Bitcoin itself is but a small part of it).

The mechanics of Bitcoin are described in the original Satoshi Nakamoto paper here. Alternatively, an earlier introductory blog post from me.

The main truly disruptive innovation with much wider utility is that of a Blockchain. A public record that is stored across many hundreds or thousands of machines, in hundreds of different legal jurisdictions, but together forming a definitive record of activity without any central control. A sort of ledger that lives in the worlds commons, and operable in a way that ensures a single digital object cannot be “double spent”; only transferred between entities.

Much of the economic activity in the world is currently served by institutions who possess “choke points” through which activity is carried and who charge (in some way) at the gate. If I want to send cash to someone, I typically pay commission or transaction charges to a number of institutions to do so. There are many areas that could be unleashed when transaction costs tend to zero and the record of some activity is stored in a publicly accessible entity without any central control:

  • Proof of Existence. One of the innovations of GIT (the Source Code Control System written by Linux author Linus Torvalds) is that every individual document/file is recorded in it’s database as a “hash”. When any piece of Digital material is passed through this piece of maths, the hash is a 8 byte “signature” that is effectively unique (the change of two random documents having the same hash is circa 1 in 83 million). So, you can immediately see, with very little comparison work, whether two documents are exactly the same or different. Manuel Araoz, a 25-year-old developer in Argentina, uses a blockchain to prove authoritatively that you had a specific document in your possession on a specific date, without having to publicly publish it’s content. The fact that electronic signatures can be part of the document being held (and hashed with the rest of its surrounding content) means that you have a distributed contract “system of record”.
  • Namecoin. The current Domain Name System (DNS) is effectively the web’s telephone directory that translates memorable names (like into the Internet Protocol Address(es) at which that web site resides (in this instance, and 10 others). However, the central repositories where this information is stored can be systemically blocked or willingly corrupted by owners of the various choke points, or the governments under whom they operate from a legal jurisdiction perspective. Namecoin is an attempt to mirror the DNS in a widely distributed blockchain, with domain names ending “.bit”, and hence operationally difficult to corrupt or censor. Although I have no useful application for it at this stage, I have already registered “ianwaring.bit” to reserve my presence there.
  • Music Distribution. Following a Kickstarter type model, would you like to buy shares in a specific musicians new song? That way, you’d see a return on your investment if it proved popular and you managed to help promote it widely to a bigger audience. Piracy in reverse! The Blockchain protocol does have the ability to run such Assurance Contracts (ie: this project is funded only if pledges of a specific value are achieved by a certain date, or annulled if the target is not met by then), so there are similar precedents for Venture Capital, or even what has to date been tax funded Government projects for the public good. I sometimes wonder how HS2 would do if the UK Government ran the whole thing as a Kickstarter project, and see if the beneficiaries were willing to put money where their political mouths are!
  • Voting. One of the ultimate choke points where MPs act as a proxy for the voters in a geographic area they represent for a multi-year term. The act of multi-year elections is probably an edge case; it’d be more radical if I could choose when I want my MP to act as my proxy and when I wish to register my share of the decision making process personally instead. I somewhat doubt that folks currently in Westminster would wish to put their constituents in control of their own interests, despite how refreshing and re-engaged we’d feel as a result.
  • Vendor Relationship Management. This is the ultimate result of Doc Searl’s work on VRM, where we ask commercial entities to bid for our business. Given the low or zero transaction cost, you could delegate a lot of the associated work to software agents if the product or service was a commodity. Like a Taxi or self-driving car, as given in this excellent 25 minute talk by Mike Hearn, an ex-Google employee (it is a great talk to listen to – not least the effect when some of the actors in transactions are machines themselves, complete with their own bank accounts and long term trade related decision making). Even Yelp, TripAdvisor or Social Media recommendations would be more plausible if subjected to the authoritative “someone I can trust” standards that the underlying technology can provide.

I’d thoroughly recommend this article on Business Insider, which does a great job of highlighting some of the possibilities.

There are many challenges ahead. Some regulatory (I hope Politicians and our Public Servants do act in our long term best interests, without being victim of the lobbying of interests rendered on the wrong side of , or distorted out of shape, by a drive for our mutual good). Some technology (things like Bitcoin will need improvements to bring down the current 10 minute delay to provide definitive authentication, and to handle an increase in Blockchain size to handle the transaction volumes currently seen by Mastercard and Visa networks). But the potential applications are dizzying both in number and of disruptive impact to everyone.

As Fred Wilson, notable VC, said recently: Let’s go back and revisit the big innovations on the commercial Internet over the past twenty years. TCP/IP, HTTP, The Browser, Search, Social, Mobile, Blockchains. Each one of those innovations drove an investment cycle. Our 2004 fund was built during social. Our 2008 fund was built during social and the emergence of mobile. Our 2012 fund was built during the mobile downturn. And our 2014 fund will be built during the blockchain cycle. I am looking forward to it.

Bitcoin (which I described in greater detail here) was only the start. The main challenge now is one of identity, and protecting it from interlopers. You have to keep your private key insanely private (even to the extent of keeping it off Internet connected machines), as that is your definitive personal identifier that someone else could use to masquerade as the real you everywhere online. At least until something can check your own physiology (it is really you), and your state of mind (you haven’t been sectioned, frail nor threatened), prior to any transaction being authenticated. Or is that what the Apple iWatch will be all about?

Watches? Give me a Hearing Aid that knows when to psst… in my ear

iWatch Concept Devices

Speculation is still rife on the nature of Apple’s upcoming iWatch device, the latest of which was speculation of a $1000 price tag or a positioning against Rolex. If it is, I may need quite a bit of advance warning before Jane sends me to collect hers (if indeed Apple release such a device).

Probably the best overview of the watch industry i’ve heard was a Cubed Podcast featuring Bill Geiser, the CEO of MetaWatch, but who previously did work for Fossil and before that for Sony on their email capable watch ranges. If you have a spare hour in a car or train journey, it’s well worth the listen; it’s Episode 11 of the Cubed Podcast, downloadable from iTunes or listen here.

One of the statistics Bill cites is that the watch market is worth circa $1.2Billion per annum, with 85% of this revenue attributable to watches costing more than $500. He is also at pains to point out that they are a very visible fashion accessory, have many variations and focus on doing just one thing well – which is telling the time. A lot of forays into putting more intelligence into them in the past have failed to make a large impact.

Since the time of that Podcast, Pebble have come out with the second iteration of their popular watch (known as the “Pebble Steel“, Samsung have sprung out two attempts at their Samsung Gear, and Motorola (who are in the middle of transitioning ownership from Google to Lenovo) have “pre-announced” their Moto-360 concept device.

The Motorola concept looks impressive (the core competence of high technology companies is normally far removed from consumer-attractive fashionable design). A few samples are as follows (you’ll need to click on these images to blow them up to full size in order to see them animate properly – or alternatively, see all the related demos at

Moto 360 Speed Reading


Moto 360 Set Alarm

The only gotcha is that space constraints usually kill the size of battery you can install in these devices, and the power required to drive the display and supporting electronics – while doing any of these applications – will empty their capacity in minutes. The acceptable norm would be at least a working day. As someone whos found their phone running out of power while trying to navigate myself around unfamiliar streets in Central and West London, this is something of a show stopper. And these Moto 360 concepts appear to be destined for science fiction only, as modern day physics will stop these becoming a reality – yet.

So, at face value, we may need new display technologies, and/or new batteries, and/or moving as much as possible away from the wrist and into powered packaging elsewhere on a person. I’m not sure if you can cast the display (like a TV using Google Chromecast, or using Apple Airplay) over low power Bluetooth, or if there are other charging mechanisms that could feed a decent display using the movement of the user, or daylight.

It’ll be interesting to see what Apple come to market with, but we may all have it wrong and find their device is a set of health sensors coupled with a simple notifications system.

While technologists may think a watch spewing the already compelling “Google Now” type notifications would be impressive, many should be reminded that looking at your watch in a meeting is often a social no-no. It’s a sign that the person doing so is disinterested in the subject of conversation and is keen to move on.

Likewise for the current generation of Google Glass, the devices look dorky and social norms around the presence of sound/picture/video recording have yet to be widely established. Sticking the glasses on top of your head is the one norm if you’re using public conveniences, but usage isn’t wide enough outside San Francisco and various tech conferences yet. And the screen real estate still too small to carry much data.

My Nexus 5 handset has one colour LED on the front that blinks White if i’ve received an email, Blue for a Facebook update, Yellow for a Snapchat and Green for an SMS. Even a service like IFTTT (“If this then that”) sitting in front of a notifications system could give a richer experience to help prioritise what is allowed to interrupt me, or what notifications get stored for review later.

Personally, i’d prefer an intelligent hearing aid type device that could slip the “psst…” into my ear at appropriate times. That would me much more useful to me in meetings and while on the move.

In the interim, the coming wave of intelligent, mobile connected electronics have yet to get evenly distributed across a very, very wide range of fashion accessories of all kinds. From the sound of Google’s work, it sounds like they are aiming at a large number of fashion OEMs – folks primarily fashion providers but who can embed licensed electronics that talk to the hub that is an Internet connected smartphone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s approach will be similar, but allowing such devices to hook into Apple provided app platforms than sit on an iPhone (such as the widely expected HealthBook).

We’ll hopefully have all the answers – and the emergent ecosystems running at full clip – this side of Christmas 2014. Or at last have a good steer following Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) and Google I/O (the Google equivalent) before mid-year, when developers should be let loose getting their software ready for these new (or at least, class of these new) devices.

Great Technology. Where’s the Business Value?

Exponential Growth Bar GraphIt’s a familiar story. Some impressive technical development comes up, and the IT industry adopts what politicians will call a “narrative” to try push its adoption – and profit. Two that are in the early stages right now are “Wearables” and “Internet of Things”. I’m already seeing some outlandish market size estimates for both, and wondering how these map back to useful applications that people will pay for.

“Internet of Things” is predicated on an assumption that with low cost sensors and internet connected microcomputers embedded in the world around us, the volume of data thrown onto the Internet will necessitate a ready market needing to consume large gobs of hardware, software and services. One approach to try to rationalise this is to spot where there are inefficiencies in a value chain exist, and to see where technology will help remove them.

One of my sons friends runs a company that has been distributing sensors of all sorts for over 10 years. Thinking there may be an opportunity to build a business on top of a network of these things, I asked him what sort of applications his products were put to. It appears to be down to networks of flows in various utilities and environmental assets (water, gas, rivers, traffic) or in industrial process manufacturing. Add some applications of low power bluetooth beacons, then you have some human traffic monitoring in retail environments. I start running out of ideas for potential inefficiencies that these (a) can address and (b) that aren’t already being routinely exploited. One example is in water networks, where fluid flows across a pipe network can help quickly isolate the existence of leaks, markedly improving the supply efficiency. But there are already companies in place that do that and they have the requisite relationships. No gap there apparent.

One post on Gigaom showed some interesting new flexible electronic materials this week. The gotcha with most such materials is the need for batteries, the presence of which restricts the number of potential applications. One set of switches from Swiss company Algra could emit a 2.4GHz radio signal between 6-10 meters using only energy from someone depressing a button; the main extra innovations are that the result is very thin, and have (unlike predecessors) extremely long mechanical lifetimes. No outside power source required. So, just glue your door bells or light switches where you need them, and voila – done forever.

The other material that caught my eye was a flexible image sensor from ISORG (using Plastic Logic licensed technology). They managed to have a material that you could layer on the surface of a display, and which can read the surface of any object placed against it. No camera needed, and with minimal thickness and weight. Something impossible with a standard CMOS imaging scanner, because that needs a minimum distance to focus on the object above it. So, you could effectively have an inbuilt scanner on the surface of your tablet, not only for monochrome pictures, but even fingerprints and objects in close proximity – for contactless gesture control. Hmmm – smart scanning shelves in retail and logistics – now that may give users some vastly improved efficiencies along the way.

The source article is at:

A whole field is opening up around collecting data from the Onboard Diagnostics Bus that exists in virtually every modern car now, but i’ve yet to explore that in any depth so far. I’ve just noticed a trickle of news articles about Phil Windley’s FUSE project on Kickstarter (here) and some emerging work by Google in the same vein (with the Open Automotive Alliance). Albeit like TVs, vehicle manufacturers have regulatory challenges and/or slow replacement cycles stopping them moving at the same pace as the computer and electronic industries do.

Outside of that, i’m also seeing a procession of potential wearables, from glasses, to watches, to health sensors and to clip-on cameras.

Glasses and Smart Watches in general are another much longer story (will try and do that justice tomorrow), but these are severely limited by the need for battery power in limited space to so much more than their main application – which is simple display of time and pertinent notifications.

Health sensors are pretty well established already. I have a FitBit One on me at all times bar when i’m sleeping. However, it’s main use these days is to map the number of steps I take into an estimated distance I walk daily, which I tap pro-rata into Weight Loss Resources (I know a walk to our nearest paper shop and back is circa 10,000 steps – and 60 mins of moderate speeds – enough to give a good estimate of calories expended). I found the calorie count questionable and the link to MyFitnessPal a source of great frustration for my wife; it routinely swallows her calorie intake and rations out the extra extra calories earnt (for potential increased food consumption) very randomly over 1-3 days. We’ve never been able to correlate it’s behaviour rationally, so we largely ignore that now.

There’s lots of industry speculation around now that Apple’s upcoming iWatch will provide health related sensors, and to send readings into a Passbook-like Health Monitoring application on a users iPhone handset. One such report here. That would probably help my wife, who always appears to suffer a level of anxiety whenever her blood pressure is taken – which worsens her readings (see what happens after 22 days of getting used to taking daily readings – things settle down):

Jane Waring Blood Pressure Readings

I dare say if the reading was always on, she’d soon forget it’s existence and the readings reflect a true reality. In the meantime, there are also feelings that the same Health monitoring application will be able to take readings from other vendors sensors, and that Apple are trying to build an ecosystem of personal health devices that can interface to it’s iPhone based “hub” – and potentially from there onto Internet based health services. We can but wait until Apple are ready to admit it (or not!) at upcoming product announcement events this year.

The main other wearables today are cameras. I’ve seen some statistics on the effect of Police Officers wearing these in the USA:

US Police Officer with Camera

One of my youngest sons friends is a serving Police Officer here, and tells us that wearing of cameras in his police force is encouraged but optional. That said, he said most officers are big fans of using them. When turned off, they have a moving 30 second video buffer, so when first switched on, they have a record of what happened up to 30 seconds before that switch was applied. Similarly, when turned off, they continue filming for a further 30 seconds before returning to their looping state.

Perhaps surprising, he says that his interactions are such that he’s inclined to use less force even though, if you saw footage, you’d be amazed at his self restraint. In the USA, Police report that when people they’re engaging know they’re being filmed/recorded, they are far more inclined to behave themselves and not to try to spin “he said that, I said that” yarns.

There are all sorts of privacy implications if everyone starts wearing such devices, and they are getting increasingly smaller. Muvi cameras as one example, able to record 70-90 minutes of hi res video from their 55mm tall, clip attached enclosure. Someone was recently prosecuted in Seattle for leaving one of these lens-up on a path between buildings frequented by female employees at his company campus (and no, I didn’t see any footage – just news of his arrest!).

We’re moving away from what we thought was going to be a big brother world – but to one where such cameras use is “democratised” across the whole population.

Muvi Camcorder


I don’t think anyone has really comprehended the full effect of this upcoming ubiquity, but I suspect that a norm will be to expect that the presence of a working camera to be indicated vividly. I wonder how long it will take for that to become a new normal – and if there are other business efficiencies that their use – and that of other “Internet of Things” sensors in general – can lay before us all.

That said, I suspect industry estimates for “Internet of Things” revenues, as they stand today, along with a lack of perceived “must have this” applications, make them feel hopelessly optimistic to me.

Apple, Sapphire, Liquid Metal & a relentlessly stationary Stock Price

Old Apple Rainbow Logo

I started running my own SIPP around one year ago, put 70% of the funds in an accumulating 100% Equity Index Tracker, and bet the rest of various US high technology stocks. So far, quite happy with overall progress. Just waiting for the recent split in Google shares to work through, but i’m beating 10% returns overall, which is tremendous.

The one bizarre one is Apple. I bought 30 shares at $523.47 (cost of around £9,593) and they are, after a year, sitting at a 1.43% loss – £137.09 overall – not big, but not showing signs of progressing either. That despite hoovering up over 70% of the mobile phone industry profits worldwide, and having an iPhone business that in itself is bigger than virtually every other company in the world. 2013 revenues of $170.91Bn.

The stock market seems to think Apple will no longer be able to continue it’s last 5 year bottom line compound annual growth rate of 39%, so are treating it as a slow and steady cash generative company, rather than one whose growth rate will continue undiminished. A Price/Earnings multiple of 13x, way lower than that of Google (30x) and that of Amazon (580x) – both of which have given me healthy returns.

Long Memory sometimes helps

My one respite has been in remembering, at the turn of the year, that Apple had signed a 2 year licensing agreement with a company called Liquid Metal (LQMT), nominally to reserve an exclusive option to use their impressive alloys – nearly 2 years ago. They’d also taken an equity investment in GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT), who were to use the investment to build a production facility in Arizona capable to manufacture phone-size displays made from Sapphire. Then a small smoke signal appeared in my Twitter feed, where someone said that Apple had filed a patent related to Liquid Metal at the US Patent Office in November 2013.

Hmmmm. I then started to get emails from the Motley Fool, saying that they knew of a recent patent filing, and that it was going to be a good opportunity to “get in early” on some secret stock they had the other side of a sales pitch for one of their investment programs. I’m already a subscriber to one of their other initiatives, so just sat that out, but tried to stay very tuned to LQMT (trading at 20c/share) and GTAT (who were around the $9 mark).

Buy buy buy

With a lack of signals arriving, I thought something would have to out ahead of the February end date of the Liquid Metal license, given that Apple had already put a patent in place using that technology. So, with around £4,700 cash in my SIPP, I elected to buy 22,000 shares of LQMT at $0.20 and 478 shares of GTAT at $9.22 on the 22nd January.

A couple of days later, news broke that employees of Apple had filed at least 7 more patents related to Liquid Metal alloys, and that GT Advanced Technology were putting pressure on US regulators to speed up the building of their new Arizona facility.

One blog I found along the way examined the Liquid Metal patents in great detail and were a fantastic, well researched read from a German expert. See: Philip Guehlke’s blog at

The Liquid Metal shares went off like a Roman Candle, zapping up from $0.20 to $0.39 in a week – and then meandered back down, sticking around the $0.29 mark. GT Advanced Technology were also climbing, but much less aggressively – though still over 20% in the first week.

I’m not used to holding shares that turn out to be quite that volatile, so I did an exit stage left on profits of 30.9% and 24.2% respectively – within 3 weeks of their original purchase. £1,450 profit. Well, that’s more than paid off the lack of Apple ROI ten times over. That said, LQMT shares are back at $0.22 now, and GTAT up at $16.00 or so, but overall happy with my lot.

Out of daily wild swings

I’m now back to my traditional position in long term buy and hold stocks only. That said, I do keep thinking about a few things as I see the buy side and sell side analysts batting Apple, Amazon and Google over tennis nets every day.

The way the market treat Apple is pretty unique. They’ve seen new product categories roll down the Apple conveyor belt to unprecedented worldwide success. iPod, iPhone, iPad… and they’re all staring down looking for evidence of yet another golden egg on its way. Contrast that to Amazon, who reinvest every penny of potential profit into building out their worldwide e-commerce infrastructure – to such an extent, the analysts think the first golden egg will arrive as soon as Jeff Bezos thinks it’s time to let it out.

New Product Categories

Apple management have indicated multiple new product categories will arrive in 2014. They have been going around the world trademarking the word “iWatch” and appear to have a wearable device in the works. Reputedly to have health monitoring related features. The main gotcha is that the market for watches worldwide at this stage is circa $1.2B/year, so it would be difficult to make any noticeable contribution to $170B/year Apple. More an accessory to the information hub that is the users iPhone.

They were reputed to be trying out a new set-top TV box that they were trialing with Time Warner Cable in the USA – at least until Comcast initiated their still ongoing attempt to buy that company. Comcast already have their own X1 box in several markets in the USA already. And again, the current Apple TV box – $99 each – and of which some 13 million had been sold to date – will again unlikely make a marked difference in Apple’s huge turnover. More as accessories to the main iPhone and iPad show.

All eyes on the next set of announcements

With that, it looks like iPhone, and to a lesser extend iPad, will continue to be their revenue and profit drivers, with new product categories likely to be ancillary accessories to support user engagement with those devices. Having seen the analyses of the Liquid Metal patents Apple have submitted, i’m fairly convinced the next models will be encased in Liquid Metal (instead of milled Aluminium for current high end models) and have scratch resistant Sapphire screens. That may also give them lower manufacturing costs to allow them to fill some of the other price bands that are growing most aggressively for their Android competitors. Or not!

Time will tell. The only thing i’m sure of is, that if they produce a health related iWatch, that my wife expect me to be first in the queue to buy one for her. And indeed a new handset if it’s an improvement to her much loved iPhone 5S. I certainly won’t let her down.

Focus on End Users: a flash of the bleeding obvious


I’ve been re-reading Terry Leahy’s “Management in 10 Words”; Sir Terry was the CEO of Tesco until recently. I think the piece in the book introduction relating to sitting in front of some Government officials was quite funny – if it weren’t a blinding dose of the obvious that most IT organisations miss:

He was asked “What was it that turned Tesco from being a struggling supermarket, number three retail chain in the UK, into the third largest retailer in the World?”. He said: “It’s quite simple. We focussed on delivering for customers. We set ourselves some simple aims, and some basic values to live by. And we then created a process to achieve them, making sure that everyone knew what they were responsible for”.

Silence. Polite coughing. Someone poured out some water. More silence. “Was that it?” an official finally asked. And the answer to that was ‘yes’.

The book is a good read and one we can all learn from. Not least as many vendors in the IT and associated services industry and going in exactly the opposite direction compared to what he did.

I was listening to a discussion contrasting the different business models of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple a few days back. The piece I hadn’t rationalised before is that of this list, only Apple have a sole focus on the end user of their products. Google and Facebook’s current revenue streams are in monetising purchase intents to advertisers, while trying to not dissuade end users from feeding them the attention and activity/interest/location signals to feed their business engines. Microsoft’s business volumes are heavily skewed towards selling software to Enterprise IT departments, and not the end users of their products.

One side effect of this is an insatiable need focus on competition rather than on the user of your products or services. In times of old, it became something of a relentless joke that no marketing plan would be complete without the customary “IBM”, “HP” or “Sun” attack campaign in play. And they all did it to each other. You could ask where the users needs made it into these efforts, but of the many I saw, I don’t remember a single one of those featured doing so at all. Every IT vendor was playing “follow the leader” (and ignoring the cliffs they may drive over while doing so), where all focus should have been on your customers instead.

The first object lesson I had was with the original IBM PC. One of the biggest assets IBM had was the late Philip “Don” Estridge, who went into the job running IBM’s first foray into selling PCs having had personal experience of running an Apple ][ personal computer at home. The rest of the industry was an outgrowth of a hobbyist movement trying to sell to businesses, and business owners craved “sorting their business problems” simply and without unnecessary surprises. Their use of Charlie Chaplin ads in their early years was a masterstroke. As an example, spot the competitive knockoff in this:

There isn’t one! It’s a focus on the needs of any overworked small business owner, where the precious asset is time and business survival. Trading blows trying to sell one computer over another completely missing.

I still see this everywhere. I’m a subscriber to “Seeking Alpha“, which has a collection of both buy-side and sell-side analysts commentating on the shares of companies i’ve chosen to watch. More often than not, it’s a bit like sitting in an umpires chair during a tennis match; lots of noise, lots of to-and-fro, discussions on each move and never far away from comparing companies against each other.

One of the most prescient things i’ve heard a technology CEO say was from Steve Jobs, when he told an audience in 1997 that “We have to get away from the notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft have to lose”. Certainly, from the time the first iPhone shipped onwards, Apple have had a relentless focus on the end user of their products.

Enterprise IT is still driven largely by vendor inspired fads and with little reference to end user results (one silly data point I carry in my head is waiting to hear someone at a Big Data conference mention a compelling business impact of one of their Hadoop deployments that isn’t related to log file or Twitter sentiment analyses. I’ve seen the same software vendor platform folks float into Big Data conferences for around 3 years now, and have not heard one yet).

One of the best courses I ever went on was given to us by Citrix, specifically on selling to CxO/board level in large organisations. A lot of it is being able to relate small snippets of things you discover around the industry (or in other industries) that may help influence their business success. One example that I unashamedly stole from Martin Clarkson was that of a new Tesco store in South Korea that he once showed to me:

I passed this onto to the team in my last company that sold to big retailers. At least four board level teams in large UK retailers got to see that video and to agonise if they could replicate Tesco’s work in their own local operations. And I dare say the salespeople bringing it to their attention gained a good reputation for delivering interesting ideas that may help their client organisations future. That’s a great position to be in.

With that, i’ve come full circle from and back to Tesco. Consultative Selling is a good thing to do, and that folks like IBM are complete masters at it; if you’re ever in an IBM facility, be sure to steal one of their current “Institute for Business Value” booklets (or visit their associated group on LinkedIn). Normally brim full of surveys and ideas to stimulate the thought processes of the most senior users running businesses.

We’d do a better job in the IT industry if we could replicate that focus on our end users from top to bottom – and not to spend time elbowing competitors instead. In the meantime, I suspect those rare places that do focus on end users will continue to reap a disproportionate share of the future business out there.

Office for the iPad; has the train already left the station?

Meeting notes by @Jargonautical

One asset I greatly admire (and crave!) is the ability to communicate simply, but with panache, speed and reasoned authority. That’s one characteristic of compelling journalism, of good writing and indeed a characteristic of some of the excellent software products i’ve used. Not to throw in the kitchen sink, but to be succinct and to widen focus only to give useful context supporting the central brass tacks.

I’ve now gone 15 months without using a single Microsoft product. I spend circa £3.30/month for my Google Apps for Business account, and have generally been very impressed with Google Spreadsheet and with Google Docs in there. The only temporary irritant along the way was the inability for Google Docs to put page numbers in the Table of Contents of one 30 page document I wrote, offering only html links to jump to the content – which while okay for a web document, was as much use as a cow on stilts for the printed version. But it keeps improving by leaps and bounds every month. That issue solved, and now a wide array of free add-ons to do online review sign-offs, adding bibliographies and more.

This week, i’ve completed all the lessons on a neat piece of Analytics software called Google Fusion Tables, produced by Google Research and available as a free Google Drive add-on. To date, it appears to do almost everything most people would use Tableau Desktop for, including map-based displays, but with a much simpler User Interface. I’m throwing some more heavy weight lifting at it during the next couple of days, including a peek at it’s Python-accessible API – that nominally allows you to daisy chain it in as part of an end-to-end a business process. The sort of thing Microsoft had Enterprises doing with VBA customisations way back when.

My reading is also getting more focussed. I’ve not read a newspaper regularly for years, dip into the Economist only once or twice every three months, but instead go to other sources online. The behaviour is to sample less than 10 podcasts every week, some online newsletters from authoritative sources, read some stuff that appears in Medium, but otherwise venture further afield only when something swims past in my Twitter stream.

This morning, this caught my eye, as posted by @MMaryMcKenna. Lucy Knight (@Jargonautical) had posted her notes made during a presentation Mary had made very recently. Looking at Lucy’s Twitter feed, there were some other samples of her meeting note taking:

Meeting Notes: Minimal Viable Product

Meeting Notes Cashflow Modelling in Excel

Meeting Notes: Customer Service

Aren’t they beautiful?

Lucy mentions in her recent tweets that she does these on an iPad Mini using an application called GoodNotes, which is available for the princely sum of £3.99 here (she also notes that she uses a Wacom Bamboo stylus – though a friend of hers manages with a finger alone). Short demo here. I suspect my attempts using the same tool, especially in the middle of a running commentary, would pale in comparison to her examples here.

With that, there are reports circulating today that the new Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, will announce Microsoft Office for iOS this very afternoon. I doubt that any of the Office components will put out work of the quality of Lucy’s iPad Meeting Notes anytime soon, but am open to being surprised.

Given we’ve had over three years of getting used to having no useful Microsoft product (outside of Skype) on the volume phone or tablet devices here, I wonder if that’s a route back to making money on selling software again, or supporting Office 365 subscriptions, or a damp squib waiting to happen.

My bet’s on the middle of those three by virtue of Microsofts base in Large Enterprise accounts, but like many, I otherwise feel it’s largely academic now. The Desktop software market is now fairly well bombed (by Apple and Google) into being a low cost conduit to a Services equivalent instead. The Server software market will, I suspect, aim the same way within 2 years.

Jean-Louis Gassee, Priorities, Targets and Aims

Bowling Ball and PinsEvery Sunday I get a “Monday Note” email from Jean-Louis Gassee, who earlier in his career had the esteemed position of Chief Technology Officer at Apple. Besides the common sense, some of it is laugh out loud funny. Like the time he was invited to a US Meeting of Senior Nokia employees in New York, asked to present on what he’d do to revitalise their fortunes, nominally based on his experience at Apple (see the unvarnished comment in the “ps:” at the end of this blog post). He listed two priorities; One was to fire the CEO (this was the one with a finance background, ahead of when Stephen Elop was appointed). The second was to co-opt Android. I can only imagine the look on the then CEO’s face when he read that out to all the Nokia employees in the audience.

Nokia have now done both, though not before Elop had thrown the company under the Microsoft Bus and where the first million orders for their low end Android phone is set to appear after Microsoft finally take control of the company.

More Priorities

Another instance is when he was still at Apple, and a fellow (new) executive was asked to present their priorities to the Board. Jean Louis describes it thus (the full article, relating to priorities for the incoming CEO at Microsoft, is here):

Once upon a distant time, the new CFO of a colorful personal computer company walks into his first executive staff meeting and proudly shares his thoughts:

“I’ve taken the past few weeks to study the business, and I’d now like to present my top thirty-five priorities…”

This isn’t a fairy tale, I was in the room. I didn’t speak Californian as fluently as I do now, so rather than encourage the fellow with mellifluous platitudes — ‘Interesting’ or, even better, ‘Fascinating, great vision!’ — I spoke my mind, possibly much too clearly:

“This is terrible, disorganized thinking. Claiming to have thirty-five priorities is, in fact, a damning admission: You have none, you don’t even know where to start. Give us your ONE priority and show us how everything else serves that goal…”

The CFO, a sharp, competent businessman, didn’t lose his cool and, after an awkward silence, stepped through his list. Afterwards, with calm poise, he graciously accepted my apologies for having been so abrupt…

Still, you can’t have a litany of priorities.

Growing a Software Business

That reminds me of the first time I was given a software business to run. At Digital, we had two Distributors selling systems to resellers. Newly transferred into that team after DEC had switched the lights out on its first foray into the world of Personal Computers, I was asked to come up with a few ideas on how to grow the amount of software sold via that channel. At the time, the previous year it had transacted around £770,000 worth of software, and was the smallest Software selling “Sales District” in Digital UK.

I duly went and sat on the sales desk at the two Distributors – Rapid Recall (who were Intel’s first UK Components Distributor) and Hawke Systems (who started in the same area, but primarily with Motorola). I talked to sales people. I listened to their phone conversations. I talked to some of their customers. I talked to their product managers. After a few intense weeks of note taking, I produced a 35 page document on ways to increase the software business via the Distributors.

My then boss, Keith Smith, read it and just said “Go do it”. Shit. Where do I start? By a stroke of luck, I got as far as the end of the first three ideas – in two years – and the business was up to over £6 million/year, and now the largest Software Sales “District” in the company. From that base, I got given my next gig, which was to start the DECdirect Software Business; selling VAX Enterprise Software, armed only with a catalogue, 8 telesellers, 2 tech support, 25,000 potential customers and direct delivery from Software Manufacturing in Galway – which had an even bigger impact. It went 0 to over $100 Million in 18 months, at 89% gross margins.

Growing a Systems Business

A few years later, I got given a flatlining Distribution IT systems business to improve. That started off with a brainstorm on all the potential ways to grow the business, which ended up with 36 specific ideas on the board. What we then did was to list all 36 ideas down the left hand side of a table, and put 4 additional columns across the top:

  1. Ease of Implementation (1-5): on the scale, 5 was easy, 1 was hard
  2. Chances of Success (1-5): 5 for a Sure Thing, through to 1 if unlikely to prevail
  3. Revenue Potential if successful: we made an educated guess on likely business levels if all went well
  4. Total of (1) x (2) x (3)

We then went down the whole table, taking the teams view of scores for each of the 36 business ideas. Once done, filled in column (4), we picked 3 strategies with the highest total scores, and binned the rest. Those were our three priorities. That business went from £12 million per year to £52 million per year within 2 years, while our primary other Distributor competitor went from £10 million per year to… £10 million per year.

Likewise, much later on, applying the same disciplines to the VMware business I ran at Computacenter for 2 years (alongside looking after 1,071 other vendors as well in our team of 4), we got from 7% market share to 21% in two years, and won their prestigious “Global Solution Partner of the Year, 2012” award. The whole underlying strategy had 2 key aims, and 3 subsidiary development goals. Worked a treat:

VMware Global Solution Provider of the Year 2012 Trophy

The top 3-5 priorities are the only ones to focus on

Ever since, every business i’ve run has boiled down to 3-5 priorities, in order of impact – which is very much like organising a set of bowling pins and knowing, at all times, what you’re aiming at.

If you get down to brass tacks – and this is something I learnt from Microsoft when selling their wares – there are four key levers in any business. To improve profits, you sell:

  • More Product(s)
  • to More People
  • More Often
  • At More Margin (which is higher price and/or lowest cost)

Graphing the number of *different* products you sell per year, how many different customers you sell to per year, the average purchase frequency per customer per year and the overall margin percentages per year, all on separate graphs, will normally isolate pretty quickly where a business is succeeding, failing or (at the very least) which way it is trending. Towards future success, or alternatively, towards oblivion. Once you understand the dynamics you’re faced with, you can start addressing how you’re going to push things forward.

And i’m far from alone:

Equally applicable, I noticed on my weekly Quora Digest this morning that someone had asked how to prioritise feature requests submitted to a Product Manager. I thought the answer from Ian McAllister of Amazon was extremely good – see it in the flesh here – not least because if follows the same sort of process i’ve found has worked well down all the years in my sordid past.


The Fallacy of One Company, One Egg, One Basket

Single Egg in BasketI got to listen to 20 minutes of Google CEO Larry Page on stage at a 2014 TED conference today. One of the questions he was asked twisted along the way into some views as to why large companies fail. He said the common characteristic – which he’s doing everything to avoid at Google – is that of “missing the future”.

To that end, like a lot of people in the IT industry, I often hear of Microsoft being a case example of this. They generate tons of cash and are still hold stupendously large market shares in their core Windows and Office markets on PCs. They have also grown into a significant share of Enterprise IT based on what started as Windows NT and it’s associated layered products, and are cash generative with X-Box these days.

Bill Gates

That said, while I hold Bill Gates in high esteem (having met him twice and been singularly impressed both times – both in Microsoft’s early years), i’ve never been a Steve Ballmer fan. For me, he epitomised everything that got unseemly with the company. Gates knew his products well, could relate strengths and weaknesses against every main competitive product, and sold his own products based on their strengths. He had a darker, relentless and ruthless side, but that largely sat behind his main product focus.

Steve Ballmer

On the other hand, Ballmer was far more obsessed by financial performance and ratcheting up market share, primarily by tripping up competitors by all means possible. With that came a myriad of third party shills and supposed industry groups, campaigning hard with government bodies to impose sanctions on competitors, and to abuse the processes of standards bodies. They have strong armed vendors using Android into “licensing” demands with menaces, alleging use of their patents in the Linux code that is part of Android (but cannot relate in public which ones they are – and in test cases, have been shown to be possessing very weak and questionable claims). Then advertising campaigns under the banner of “Get the Facts” and more recently “don’t get Scroogled”, both with a reputation for poor accuracy and bringing Microsofts own brand reputation into disrepute, with no meaningful positive effect. Gone were all the pushes based on the strengths of Microsofts own offerings; instead just trying to trip everyone else up.

In the end, Ballmer got ousted by the board, albeit only after deciding to buy Nokia, electing to pursue a “Devices and Services” strategy, and to restructure the whole operation into one whole – removing the previous Business Unit, devolved P&L structure previously in place.

Strategy – Whoops!

A “Devices and Services” strategy is a particularly goody. In the industry, Apple follows a Devices model, where they run the entire value chain vertically – from basic hardware all the way up to services layered on top. On the other hand, Google run services that run horizontally across everyones devices, making profit from monetising customer purchase intents. So, a devices company try to keep all the added value around their own device from which they derive their money, whereas a services company needs their touch points to go across all devices that have market share in the industry. The two strategies are incompatible; i’ve yet to see the first example of a vertically integrated, horizontally integrated company exist.

With that “strategy” put in place, and all the previous warring Business Units now running under a centrally planned and executed structure, Ballmer did an exit stage left.

There is a case in recent history of a large high tech company that did an identically structured pivot attempt, and demonstrates one end game of such a “one company, one egg, one basket” strategy. I fear that this latest restructure puts Microsoft in grave danger of following the same example.

The Death of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)

I used to work for DEC, where 1957-1982 there were many customer industry focused product lines. Things like Engineering Systems Group, Graphic Arts (that’s Newspapers/Publishing), MDC (Manufacturing, Distribution & Control), Education, Commercial OEM, Technical OEM, Laboratory Data Products, etc. Some 130 of them, all pulling on the output of Central Engineering and Manufacturing, then applying their industry knowledge to ruthlessly deliver excellent value to customers in their target industries. Each product line paid for the sales presence they needed down to office level worldwide.

Sea Change

By 1982, there were some concerns in the Exec Committee that there was too much “who knows who” horse trading of capacity in manufacturing, so they elected to move to the same sort of model that Microsoft has just moved to. That of “one company, one strategy, one architecture” model, orientated around the strategic core asset – VAX (in the case of Microsoft this time around, it is Windows).

Aside from a financial bath in the very first quarter in 1983, where all the cracks in the processes that the Product line structure papered over got exposed, the company really mushroomed in sales performance. Unfortunately by 1987, some specific members of the Exec Committee started citing a date when they’d outgrow IBM in size (who were 7x DECs size at the time). DEC missed virtually every strategic product transition at the low end. Management hyped up attacking the high end with very expensive ECL chips, while the labs in Hudson had $300 CMOS VAX chips ready to go. The very impressive Prism/Mica chips (30x VAX 11/780) taped out. But an exec committee that kept on flip-flopping between 32 bit and 64 bit edicts into engineering, then losing patience with the delays they’d caused – and killing the very projects that were the foundation of the next generation CPU technology. Key staff left.

It took a further 5 years to get Prism/Mica out – adding a couple of instructions, fixing on a 64 bit address space, and calling it Alpha AXP. By then, the rot had set in. That Silicon was the fastest CPU in the industry by nearly 2x for getting on 10 years, but the company above it faltered. Ken Olsen (co-founder) got deposed, and Bob Palmer (new CEO) elected to move back to a different divisional model.

So, he had PC, Storage, Components & Peripherals to play in the now horizontally integrated markets, and a few vertical industry ones (Financial Services, Consumer Process Manufacturing, Discrete Manufacturing & Defence, Healthcare, Telco+Media+Transport). However, he also got the salesforce commissioned (something against the traditions of the company), and introduced a “two quarters missed financials and you’re out” ethos in the divisional heads.

These final moves were Digitals death knell. You either had a lottery on who didn’t get fired, handing extra responsibility to those leaders who happened to string together two quarters of good sales (largely by seasonal industry trends rather than own performance). Or the panic stricken ones would stuff their distribution channels with stock, hoping that would delay the inevitable for at least one more quarter.

Following a few Bob Palmer legal stunts with Intel and with Microsoft, the company was sold to Compaq, having accumulated losses in Bob Palmers 5 year reign equivalent to the total profits of the company in 35 years under Olsen. Given the above, I think Microsoft need to be extra vigilant not to go the same way.

Microsoft now have that same type of structure

The new organisation structure will give Microsoft every opportunity to follow in DECs footsteps if they are not extra careful. The key litmus test will come when the company needs to move from Windows to whatever platform needs to come next, and I currently see no seeds planted of what that will be.

To that end, there are some early green shoots, and some dark clouds. Mr Scroogled has been promoted to “Head of Strategy”, which I can only imagine is to leverage his Democratic political connections for the future; I can imagine no other background to suggest that any company wide core strategy is safe in his hands. On the good side, they have allowed Nokia to produce a low end Android based phone handset, and look to have decided to finally release Office on the iPad formally. Outside of that, no real news at all. Many commentators wax lyrical on the lack of strategy for the future they are aiming at, or where they have anything that’s meaningful in the now mobile and tablet growth markets, and indeed in public cloud servers where the economics (and share) sit resolutely with Linux.

Capitalism vs Communism – Corporate Editions

Meanwhile, the other side of my brain says that centrally planned monoliths have an over dependency on the cleverness at the centre, while the chaos that is capitalism distributes the risk. Microsoft is such a monolith, and i’m not sure how deep that central cleverness is.

Down history, a chaotic network will always defeat a hierarchy. Just ask Gorbachev.