Deathwatch: One Laptop Per Child

I read this article in the new (nice relaunch btw) and it resonated with me. Long on details, this article is an interesting chronicle of a project that has been a darling of the technorati from the day it was launched, in 2005, by tech-celebrity Nicholas Negroponte. One Laptop Per Child positions itself at the intersection of powerful emotions for the tech industry, it is focused on education and more specifically to children in under-developed parts of the world, and it is based on open source principles organized through a non-profit entity. It’s the trifecta of geek passions: education, open source, and non-profit.

Watching this unfold over the years I could not help but be a supporter, but the pragmatist in me prevented me from being a contributor. The reason is simple, in an unexpected way OLPC approaches “computers for kids” in a depressing egalitarian manner, which is that they should have that which is cheap and uninteresting… a OLPC computer looks cool but features a small display, limited capabilities, and software that is uninspired, in other words it is antithetical to the broader approach that the technology industry itself approaches to the world at large.

OLPC put a premium on cheap while discounting the value of compelling content. More damning is the fact that the actual OLPC product never met the original price target that Negroponte established in his founding vision. Let’s face it, you can get a lot of computer for $200 at volume, the new Intel Classmate Tablet has a per unit retail of $200 and features more exciting hardware, software, and a distribution network to boot.

This is the fundamental flaw in the OLPC effort, they failed to anticipate the progression of hardware and software outside of the open source model, and as a result their cost/benefit advantage never materialized. Furthermore, as tangental technologies like wireless devices (smartphones, whatever) have overtaken the desktop metaphor in developed and developing countries it is a failed strategy from the starting gate to give students last generation technology. The world did not stand still while OLPC developed an inflexible platform.

At the same time, more powerful (if less rugged) hardware using standard software has come down in price and will challenge the XO in wealthier markets. Perhaps more significant, as low-cost smartphones flood the developing world, the XO will have to justify itself as more than a media consumption device. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see many more large-scale installations.

Lastly, let’s arc up and have a conversation about the role of technology in education. Giving computers to kids and having an expectation that everything will work out is no strategy, nor is the approach that loading up classrooms with computers while retaining the same structured education model. Technology untethers the classroom from the building and that requires a different education approach than we are taking today.

Windows 8: Microsoft in a Post Microsoft Era

Like a lot of people I am watching the launch of Windows 8 in the market unfold in real time and find it one of the most fascinating shows in tech right now. There are few moments in our industry’s history that combine such a wide array of transformational disruptions on a company, while at the same time the company itself is positioning itself to break with it’s entire history and embrace change.

Here’s what I know:

  • Windows 8 is a fundamentally different approach to the Windows user experience.
  • From the ground up Win8 fully embraces a touch driven user interface.
  • Win8 features a rich immersive audio and video capabilities.
  • Built for the cloud with integrated services via SkyDrive.

Let’s run through some of the criticisms that I am reading, and contrast with how other companies are treated.

1) It’s a confusing user experience. 

Maybe, time will tell but the context this criticism is usually presented in is that of existing Windows users who are struggling to adapt to a new UX. This is the most unfair criticism that Windows 8 is subjected to because were it any other company the criticism would not be offered, instead what would be said is that the company is question is positioning for the future. How many times has Apple unilaterally changed something about their products to the sound of crickets among the chattering class?

Microsoft is at the forefront of a post-PC landscape and they are doing something about it. It’s not that desktop computing will go away, but it clearly – by any measure – isn’t driving growth and Microsoft is responding by drawing on their considerable experience in gaming, media, and mobile technologies to offer a next generation platform. I, for one, am looking forward to being confused by a new generation of Windows…

2) Companies will hold off on upgrading.

No shit, seriously is this what passes for tech journalism? We are in the midst of a recession (whatever you want to call it, the economy sucks) and companies are in no mood for an upgrade cycle. It’s also worth pointing out that Windows 7 is well supported in the modern enterprise and does what companies want it to do.

There is a bigger issue to take into account, which is that for Microsoft the future will always hinge on supporting businesses using Windows (and Office) but for the company to adapt to a bigger competitive landscape they have to change the dynamic of selling predominately through companies and OEMs.

We have been talking about consumerization of the enterprise for 10 years and it has already happened. New technologies don’t leak into companies through individuals, it is a primary path through which technology products now enter the enterprise. For Microsoft this means they need to appeal to individuals more strongly and draft on that to drive uptake with CIOs.

3) Windows 8 is a tablet experience forced into a desktop/laptop paradigm.

Perhaps, but to accept this blindly also means that we are not imagining a hardware convergence between tablets and ultra portable laptops. How many people use a bluetooth keyboard with their iPad to, effectively, use it as a Macbook Air? This convergence is already happening and Samsung has already announced a laptop with a touchscreen display…

4) OEMs are unhappy with Windows 8.

and the problem is….? Why should I care if OEMs are unhappy? The PC supply chain has stagnated, driving little innovation in recent years as consumers have put design and usability values ahead of low cost commoditization. Microsoft has allowed their OEM partners to crapify the initial user experience and force to the forefront mediocre applications that people don’t want and didn’t use. Microsoft has the chops to be a force in hardware manufacturing, they should embrace this and let Surface be a shot across the bow to companies like Dell and HP that design matters and if they won’t deliver it then Microsoft will.

In the process of writing this post I pretty much decided I am going to order one of the new Win8 devices when they become available. As much as I like my Macbook Air I am also objective enough to point out that Apple has been neglecting the Macbook product lines, substituting incrementalism for real innovation while they put the brunt of their efforts on iOS development and device support. I’m ready to give Microsoft another shot..

PS- I deliberately titled this post to reflect a “post Microsoft era”. This is not a typo from the oft heard “post PC era”. Microsoft needs to completely reinvent the platform that got them to where they are, just prettying up Windows and adding some cool features isn’t enough to capture customers like me.

When Sorry Does’t Cut It

I got up at 3:45 this morning to take a Southwest 6am flight to San Diego. The flight was delayed for 20 minutes, which turned into an hour and then a 5 hour delay… scheduled, we have yet to get back on the plane after being directed to get off. As an airline, Southwest went from being easy to being really challenged in just a few years…. but that is another post.

The motivation for my missive this morning is the phrase “I’m sorry”. It has been uttered countless times today and each time I hear it I want to scream “save your hollow words, it doesn’t help and I am not responsible for making you feel good about your screwup”.

Customer service agents have been trained to be empathetic and acknowledge customer frustration, and this is the problem… it is training, not real empathy. I hear “I’m sorry” so often that the phrase has been devalued to a slogan! I would prefer these companies just say “yeah we screwed up and it sucks”. I get that people want to be acknowledged but there is something subversive about the phrase in that it is not about correcting a wrong but rather containing a wrong and not giving the customer anywhere to go with it.

Saying “I’m sorry” in a customer service context is really saying “we acknowledge your complaint and our responsibility for that phase of your issue is concluded”. There is no cost for a company to say “I’m sorry” therefore there is no value to the gesture.

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3D Printing Gets DRM

Recently I wrote about the changing nature of products as a result of increasingly available consumer grade 3D printing technology, a topic that continues to bump around inside my head.

Yesterday I read an article about a DRM system to address the exposure that manufacturers face with products printed using 3D printers for which the products themselves have not been printed.

The worry for manufacturers is that because the CAD files that carry directions for manufacturing objects are digital too, they’ll be just as easy to duplicate and re-distribute as an mp3 or a movie.

One big difference is that you can’t copyright objects. That’s because copyright applies to creative works but not to “useful articles.” You can, however, patent a new invention or product design, and Myhrvold’s system is a way to make sure no one prints patented ideas without compensating their inventor.

Ultimately this will result in the same fate that DRM for music had, which is that it will be circumvented and ultimately dropped in the interests of customer experience. Manufacturers will no doubt embrace DRM initially in a reactive mode to protect what they have, but over the long term successful competitive advantage will come from embracing 3D printing with new business models that reflect a redefinition of what a product is.

Samsung is the Old Sony

Remember back in the 1980’s and 90’s when Sony could not miss with new products and existing product extensions? They owned high end televisions and despite a major failure with Betamax they recovered and established themselves as a leader in video recording and playback. Lugging around a Sony camcorder was a sign of status, reflecting best in class with a price tag to match.

The gaming console market existed long before Sony entered it with the Playstation but I think we can all agree that Sony owned the game console market once they entered it and set a standard to which other aspired, and then took it mobile with the PSP, an under-appreciated product that has outsold the game console that spawned it. Even with their decline and the endless series of missteps with the PS3 launch, they still amassed 70 million online gamers in their network.

Mobile phone handsets… not a clear leader but definitely in the leader pack and with a reputation for well engineered hardware. The W series and Cybershot mobile handsets reflected disciplined targeting before the age of the smartphone where one device could do everything.

For 2 decades Sony could do no wrong… from electronics that spanned alarm clocks to professional grade recording equipment, coupled with an entertainment division that uniquely brought together content in a form that we now associate with Apple.

I was thinking about this the other day when I decided I wanted a Samsung Note 10.1 tablet. Several online reviews I found put the Note tablet against the Sony Android tablet and the result was surprisingly positive for Sony. Hmmm… interesting, but in the final equation I found myself gravitating to Samsung because of the leadership they have exerted in the market, combining engineering and design in compelling products. In other words… the old Sony.

This caused me to mentally inventory the other products in our home that are graced with the Samsung label. We have been replacing flat panel displays with updated LED models and in each case I have purchased Samsung models, from the very high end options to the small utility display that hangs under our kitchen cabinets. DVD players, Samsung… the integrated Anynet+ system is really painless. Washer and dryer in the laundry room… Samsung. We have become a Samsung home without paying much attention to it, they are putting out hit after hit.

An unintended beneficiary of my Samsung admiration may be Microsoft. I have been hearing good things about Windows 8 from people who would, by any definition, be called hardcore Mac addicts but it wasn’t until Samsung brought their vision for hardware to the table that I really paid attention. The next generation Ultra laptops are very impressive and could well displace my trusty Macbook Air…

PS- I did buy the Note Tablet and after 3 days of frequent use I am impressed.

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The 2012 Social CRM Tragic Quadrant

Last week the respected industry analyst firm Gartner Group released their 2012 Social CRM Magic Quadrant. For those of you who follow these proclamations, the inside baseball crowd, the MQ is an event unto itself and despite what anyone would suggest, it really is all about the 2×2 chart.

The methodology of the MQ is rigorous, focusing on vendor positions, customer references, and product offerings. The coveted position is upper right quadrant, the intersection of the “visionary” and “ability to execute” axis, and typically the landscape changes incrementally reflecting the arduous pace of change in any technology solution segment.

Companies trumpet placement in the MQ as an approving nod from Gartner that they have passed muster and represent a safe choice for organizations in the market for such a product. It has been like this since the 1990’s and will no doubt continue into the future.

(Full disclosure: Get Satisfaction did not participate in the MQ process, in fact we asked to not be included and did not submit any material to Gartner but they evaluated us and placed us in the Niche quadrant.)

The Social CRM MQ always sparks debate, about the placement of vendors and more significantly about the methodology employed to evaluate the vendors. This year is no exception.

Gartner defines social CRM as

  1. Encourage many-to-many participation with customers, prospects, selling partners and internal staff.
  2. Capture and share user-generated data and content.
  3. Cede control to the community by providing varying levels of autonomy and engagement levels.
  4. Demonstrate a mutual, balanced purpose for company and community use.

Leading to the benefits of successful social CRM strategies, which are, according to Gartner:

  1. Building trust
  2. Gaining customer insight
  3. Differentiating products or services
  4. Increasing sales

The stated #1 benefit is “building trust” but here we get into the soft center of the entire social CRM market, which is the ability for any product or service to “build trust” if the organization deploying it does not itself define “building trust” as an organizational value. Is Gartner asking the right things or are they throwing in things that any software provider by itself is incapable of achieving on behalf of a customer? In other words, are they evaluating what is achievable with a good social product or they holding vendors accountable for the aspirational goals of social technologies in general?

Of the four benefits the most tangible is #4, increasing sales, but this is the one that causes the most consternation for companies implementing social strategies. What is the value of a tweet, shared Topic, customer interaction, and Like? We have theories and models but the fact remains that the economy of social engagement is being defined on a day-by-day basis and modeling the ROI of social interactions is highly theoretical (for a good read, check out the paper Social Dollars: The Economic Impact of Customer Participation in a Firm-sponsored Online Community and McKinsey’s breathtakingly deep report on The Social Economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies)

More problematically is that after starting out by defining social CRM as a set of values, Gartner then proceeds to evaluate vendor offerings not on how they contribute to the stated organizational values but on the functionality, use cases, and vendors attributes… which in the end is pretty much all they can evaluate.

In each Vendor Profile the strengths and cautions line up according to attributes that have little to do with how companies are taking advantage of the solutions; rather the primary critique of the MQ is on based on evaluation through an IT lens.  The fundamental challenge remains that Gartner is attempting to evaluate solution providers according to the business strategies their customers will adhere to… social CRM is, as defined by Gartner in the first sentence of the opening paragraph: “Social CRM is a business strategy…”.

As a result, the proclaimed leaders in the MQ are what they always are… well capitalized, suited-based offerings, and in 2012 we saw little movement from 2011, which itself saw little movement from 2010. I predict that in 2013 the map will look pretty much like 2012, barring any acquisitions in which case the names will change but the offerings will remain the same.

Broadly speaking, how can the same companies hocking the same products be declared leaders when the market itself is recognized as highly dynamic and fluid? More significantly, when has IT led any organization when it comes to values and capabilities related to customer engagement and experience? Mitch Lieberman states the case well:

“Social CRM does NOT need a quadrant. What companies need is help understanding how to humanize their CRM practices.”

Printing vs. Buying Products

A few months ago I read a story about a gunsmith who used a commercially available 3-D printer to “print” an AR-15 rifle. He used commonly available CAD designs and his knowledge of firearms to make the components out of, approximately, a dozen different kinds of plastics and, I am assuming, an off-the-shelf rifled gun barrel.

Histrionics about firearms aside (gun control, untraceable weapons, etc.), there are really interesting questions that this brings up about the nature of a product. Is it the thing itself, a result of a sourcing, manufacturing and distribution strategy, or is it the concept of the thing that then has all of the attendent sourcing, manufacturing and distribution attached to it. This got me to wondering if in the not distant future when 3-D printers become just another durable good that is available to consumers, if then a significant paradigm shift occurs whereby product companies no longer sell the finished product but rather the intellectual property of a product.

As I dwelled on what this would mean the obvious consequence was a renewed focus on DRM as a means of protecting against misappropriation of intellectual property. Regardless of how you feel about patent and copyright law, reasonable people agree that when someone, or a group of “someone’s” as in a company, invest in the creating of something original that they deserve to have some measure of protection against other people just copying it.

DRM in this context would not only provide protection against improper distribution but also against unlimited consumption. If you purchase the design for a tape dispenser the expectation would be that it would be a one time use plan… but this could unleash new business models based on subscription whereby you purchase the tape dispenser and every other product the company releases in that product line. (I picked a tape dispenser simply because as I looked around it was the first all plastic product I saw on a desk.)

With the increasing dependence on embedded electronics you might find yourself purchasing a design for a headphones that includes the production drawings your 3-D printer spits out and a key piece of the proprietary electronics that “activates” the headphones. For the consumer the advantage would be the ability to customize the headphones for size, color, graphics, or any other design feature, while also having access to differentiating technology that provides superior performance. For the company the focus would then be less on exploding the number of SKUs in the headphone product line, more on investing in the proprietary technology that provides differentiation in the market.

So I tucked all this away as interesting but otherwise unremarkable until yesterday when I read a story about a music synthesizer company that is posting design drawings for product replacement parts online, telling customers they can print parts instead of contacting the company to have them send out replacement parts, like knobs and sliders. Very cool stuff.