Google and its 20% Free Time

I’m a little enamored by Quora lately, so excuse me for posting two of their questions up here, but I’m fascinated by the “How does Google’s “Innovation Time Off” (20% time) work, in practice?” question.

You can read the piece on your own, but what I found interesting was how people couldn’t deal with all the approvals needed and got chastised for not looping in the right people. Maybe Google has gotten too large, but the scrappiness needed to get things done there used to get labeled as internal entrepreneurial spirit. Now it’s red-tape and playing the game according to some.

I’m personally going to believe it’s still the former and that some just realized that Google has rules like the rest of the world and they just didn’t like it.

Wireless and Net Neutrality: Explain to me…

I’ve been on the handset side a long time, so I’m not fluent on wireless infrastructure challenges. As I read Engadget’s review of the Google / Verizon Net Neutrality Proposal, one section particularly stood out:

Wireless broadband. Possibly the most important provision of the entire agreement, and the biggest compromise. Under Verizon and Google’s plan, wireless networks would be excused from every provision except the transparency requirement. Why? Because of the “unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks,” of course. Or… perhaps because Google has an interest in allowing Verizon to do whatever it wants with traffic on its Android-dominated wireless network. Either way, it’s hard to reconcile the stated need for net neutrality in this agreement with a giant exception for wireless networks, which are quickly becoming the most important networks of all.

I’ve been told many operators have suffered with wireless capacity issues for quite awhile, especially as more users move toward more data-intensive smart phones. So with limited spectrum, they have to be careful so as to maintain a decent level of service for all customers. Some of them will massage certain traffic, like torrent downloads, in favor of others. So in a sense, they are doing the common user a favor by keeping possibly illegal file-sharing and such to a minimum. It really isn’t even about censoring or neutrality, it’s just about keeping the network alive.

So I ask anyone reading this, I beg you to correct my thinking. To me, it seems a reasonable position for some wireless operators to take. However, I’d like to know more about this debate. Educate me please.

One caveat: Give me something better than the “slippery slope” argument.

The “Rescuing Nokia” Plan

For those following Nokia, this article from The Register is a must read.

The corporate culture of Nokia is unique. Like any large company, it has an overwhelming number of processes, political battles, and organizational changes. At time it feels like a monstrous robot trudging along, yet there is a super-computer at its core. A “human cloud” for lack of a better explanation. The analysis that’s done within this cloud, not to mention the innovations conceptually developed there, would astound those that only associate Nokia with cheap, plastic phones. Sadly, this intelligent cloud can’t always get successfully navigates its own robot arms and legs.

So when Juhani Risku, the former Nokia employee profiled in the article, gives his assessment of Nokia’s problems, I couldn’t help but think, “yes…Yes…YES!!!” It’s easy to dismiss him as someone pointing out problems who has no power to solve them, but his message is almost spot on. Risku believes Nokia has become a “a risk-averse bureaucracy” that “stifles innovation” and “makes progress slow or non-existent.” To make it worse, he’s revealed that competitors brought to market ideas that were born in Nokia, but had “realis[ed] them better”.  I happen to agree with him on two sources of this problem.

The first is what Risku calls Nokia’s “obsession with data gathering.” Even a few days inside of Nokia will overwhelm anyone with the immensity of research available to the average employee. In some cases, it’s so bad that one could make a compelling argument for either side of an issue by referencing this or that research report. I do believe senior management had sifted through this data and chosen their direction, but from middle-management down, the often contradicting sources of information could easily immobilize a discussion. Not knowing which side to take, many of us stood still waiting for more data, typically waiting until market conditions validated one viewpoint over the other. There was a line out the door of people willing to make a decision, but culturally, the lack of enough market data prevented many from taking the risk. Since the mobile market is constantly in flux, many new markets just wont show up in a research report. As such, Nokia has accepted to be a fast-follower in certain  trends and development.

Second, Risku takes aim at Nokia’s segmentation and consumer-driven approach towards device creation. As a marketing professional I have a firm respect and appreciation for market segmentation and consumer-facing decisions, so don’t misunderstand my points here.  Up until the last six months of my tenure at Nokia, I drank the segmentation and consumer-focus Kool-Aid just as much as the next person. Nokia’s segmentation strategy offered a common understanding across markets and presented us a vocabulary on how to address them. In that way, it was absolutely fantastic. However, it fails similarly around the “data gathering” issue, that being it could not address markets that were not there. I recognize the obviousness of this statement, but I came to the conclusion that much of our segmentation had created pockets of walled-in thinking. Much of what should have been used to attack markets, became used to attack new ideas and innovation that did not fit within the model. I don’t believe any of the originators of our segmentation had this thinking in mind as it was created, it just developed as such.

Worse, it had the debilitating effect of limiting innovation. To clarify, it did not eliminate it, but may have restricted the scope of many to only think within narrowly defined customer segments and experiences. Many of us attempted to match everything in the phone to the desired segment: design, appearance, pricing, promotion, etc. Contrast this with the current Apple/Google approach that provide a strong platform with a broad ecosystem of innovative 3rd parties. Apple specifically has honed its offering around the user experience, but basically has left each user to define himself by mixing and matching applications. To put it another way, Apple/Google offered everyone a blank sheet of paper with the developer ecosystem providing the crayons.  Nokia unfortunately is left writing in the margins of an old over-used piece of paper (Symbian), with nothing to show for it than a black pen and some white-out.

The patriotic side of me may bleed through here, but one issue I did take with Risku is his almost venomous view of the “American business culture” whose “arrogance and aggression” that be believes “paralysed Nokia.” I can agree it would be near impossible for an American outsider to easily walk into Nokia and make changes without destroying value left and right. However, my judgement is not based off the belief that the American way-of-thinking is inherently wrong. It’s more more due to the complexity that Nokia has built around itself that almost requires a sherpa to navigate. Much of this was built on an arrogance of “not invented here” that makes Nokia bulky in places, extremely limiting its agility to respond to changing markets. I wont even get into how European-centric development arrogance has repeatedly cost Nokia the North American market.

Risku misses the point in regard to aggression as well. The first thing I noticed about Nokia, versus my previous employer Intel, was its lack of aggression. My feeling then, and even now to a certain extent, was that Nokia waited for markets to develop while Intel aggressively went out and built them. Sure, Intel has lost a few along the way (WiMax, Network Processors, etc.), but when it wins, it wins big because it builds the market the suit them. Qualcomm, a historical thorn in Nokia’s side, also takes this approach by building markets where Nokia is too bloated to move or too arrogant to think they can be knocked off their block. So while Risku wants to make aggression sound negative, it is also a source for many companies to continually innovate, seek out new markets, and adapt. If you watch Nokia’s attempt at broad ecosystem creation, you’ll quickly see how the lack of directed aggression hinders much of their progress.

So as a former employee, I’d like to say that Nokia is still an extremely powerful competitor in the market. Yes, many newer entrants are getting the press, but none of them yet does as many things as consistently well as Nokia. They all have exploitable weaknesses that Nokia is capable of addressing. If and when Nokia fixes its smartphone problem, you’ll see many customers come back to them. There is a still a strong brand preference out there for them to rebuild upon if done sooner than later. Their reach across markets and relationships with operators and consumers is still there. The giant robot may be slow in its lumbering, but it’s still a giant robot that could still potentially smash its giant hands down.

And finally, the people inside Nokia are still some of the brightest and most talented in the industry, if not the world. Many of them are quiet leaders in their respective fields, and most of them have an intense desire to see Nokia return to its former glory (and values). Obviously some of them are still my friends, so I’m biased. However, I can assure you that if Nokia can put together a vision of the future for its people to truly rally behind, you’ll see a newly rejuvenated company roaring back across all their markets.

I wish them good luck.

MediaTek-Android Deal to Grow Shanzhai Further?

According to a Network World article, Taiwanese firm MediaTek has struck a deal with Google to release low-cost chipsets specifically for Android. For those familiar with the Shanzhai concept and market (read here for more info), this could be a game changer in developing markets where this approach continues to grow in strength.

For those that don’t know, MediaTek has for years been the supplier of a “system on a chip” that many China-based handset manufacturers have used to eat away at the market shares of many mobile giants like Nokia, Moto, and Samsung. Collectively, they are labeled as “Shanzhai” and are as much a culture as a business. Some of them are the source of fake name-brand phones, but many develop their own (creative and hilarious) designs. When you have a company like MediaTek who can provide a cheap hardware solution, it becomes easy for new companies to put out their own phone model.

So how does this new announcement affect the Shanzhai ecosystem?

Even though MediaTek partnered with Microsoft, a lower-cost Android platform provides a real weapon. Not only do they make a significant jump in terms of UI and functionality, they get access to a growing developer base. On some metrics, this could allow them to stay on par with other big-brands using Android, and maybe even ahead of Nokia/Symbian. Obviously they lack the marketing and distribution to really go big, but 1000 little guys each carrying a pretty big gun has the potential to do serious damage to existing players.

Not only is the Shanzhai movement strong in China, but their products are making inroads into India and Africa, which are strongholds of companies like Nokia. Africa is a rapidly growing mobile market, one that is still not yet one. If any of the Chinese manufactures (even a Shanzhai one) were to overcome the perceived issue of Chinese-made products, things could change. And in markets like India, where once again Nokia has a huge brand preference, a Shanzhai-Android combination could start tilting the market. As a market that values new features at an extremely low price, this new type of competitor could sway over many of the locals.

Why Apple Has Been Successful

Apple Study: 8 easy steps to beat Microsoft (and Google)

I would argue that the title of this presentation is a bit misleading; Google and Microsoft do employ some of the key points from this presentation, just maybe not always with the same effectiveness. Also, one could also each company  holds a unique view of what constitutes value, progress, and success.
Regardless, they’ve done a nice job distilling the key components of the Apple approach. Many of these have been discussed ad naseum in other places, so the conciseness of this report much easier to digest.
A few of my favorite points were:
Apple re-legitimize vertical integration (slide 10,11): It seems a few years ago “vertical integration” was almost a curse word. Apple has definitely resuscitated this approach. However, I believe its more a result of their strategy to control the user experience that pushes them into this model rather than some innate superiority to this approach. It has failed for them in the past, so time will tell if they can maintain this structure moving forward.
App Store revenues a drop in the bucket (slide 16): I didn’t know this, I was always under the impression this was a huge money-maker for them. Considering the content-providers involved, one could assume they must take a large cut. If this is really a driver for their hardware, as the report indicates, one has to wonder what would happen if they actually started feeling price pressure on their physical products. I guess it will continue to make sense for them not to license out their software assets. Letting lower-cost manufacturers fight price wars with you and others would definitely erode their margins quickly.
Integration reinforced by retail strategy (slide 24): Can we just retire the words “halo effect” sooner than later? I admit it, this phrase is a personal pet peeve.
iPad embodies the transition to post-PC era (slide 34): Gotta love the “truck” versus “car” analogy here. I’m still not on-board with the post-PC era yet, but that may be due to the fact I’m a truck guy.  Unless  new innovations start pushing the boundaries of existing hardware, I might start migrating to a “car”.
Overview of Apple, Microsoft, and Google (slide 39): I’d love to know what the reasons are for the difference in the number of patent filings between these companies. With Microsoft, they do a bit of everything, so I can understand the number of patents, but Google is also involved in multiple markets. So why are these numbers so drastically different?
In the U.S., I think Apple and Google would be lauded as innovative, while Microsoft as stagnant. So to play devil’s advocate, could the number of patents filed and awarded actually be a symptom for lack of focus? I think some of Microsoft’s moves over the past years could make you wonder. I don’t have a strong opinion either way, just food for thought.
What are Apple’s main short-term risks? (slide 43): As I write this, Apple currently has a press conference scheduled where some are debating whether Apple would announce a recall on the iPhone 4 due to its antenna issues. This report could almost be prophetic.
On the last page I noted, don’t miss the the comment about Steve Jobs insistence that an early desktop Apple product not have any fans. As a “product guy”, it’s nice to know that even the most famous have their little embarrassing mistakes they’d like to take back. It’s a good reminder that Apple is still a speed-bump or two away from losing all they’ve gained, although they have been doing more right than wrong over the past few years.
Page 1 of 212