David Karp, Gotcha and Double Standards

I read this piece in Business Insider about comments that David Karp of Tumblr made while keynoting at Cannes Lions, a big advertiser conference held this week. I’ll save you the pain of reading it on their site, here’s what their core complaint is:

1) Karp originally refused to allow advertising on Tumblr, stating at the time that “it turned their stomach”.

2) In 2010 Tumblr famously reversed their stance on advertising.

3) Today Karp is effusive in his admiration and praise of advertisers (therefore he is clearly a hypocritical bastard).

I’m glad BI has a memory machine that they spin up whenever someone influential in this industry speaks but is it really necessary or useful to excoriate people for evolving their viewpoints? We see this all the time in entertainment, up-and-coming musicians and actors start out saying “it’s all about the music” or “I just want to make great movies” and years later, after success finds them, the soundbites shift to royalties, distribution points, and their production companies. Life brings a lot of complexity, it’s naïve to think that the naïve won’t grow into it.

Furthermore, we regularly ridicule politicians for being obstinate in their positions and a favorite Inside the Beltway game is “gotcha, remember when you said…”. Should we not hold high the value of changing one’s position when facts and understanding demand that we do so? So we say we want leaders to expand their thinking yet we punish them when they do so.

If I am ever so fortunate to find the success that brings with it the attention that many in Silicon Valley’s upper echelons receive, bring on the quotes because I have lived my life with a simple mantra, strong opinions loosely held for things outside of core values like honesty, integrity, and ethics…

Living With a Chromebook

Last week I bought a Samsung Chromebook.

The reason for taking the plunge is that my son needs a new computer and I talked with my wife about getting him a laptop instead of a new iMac. The only desktop computer in the house is his, Lisa and I both use laptops and tablets while working, reading, whatever, and rarely sit in our home office. As a result, if my son used his computer he was often doing it unsupervised and at his age I still want to have a watchful eye on what he is doing.

The proliferation of free, and pseudo-free, applications available through app marketplaces also presents a challenge for parents because many of these apps have features that circumvent the parental controls that operating systems provide. For example, many games have embedded chat capabilities. With that in mind, I wanted to give him a laptop that cut off one of the avenues by which children can stumble into trouble, installed apps, which often also bring security risks that could impact our entire home network.

Lastly, I wanted to experience the Chromebook as a possible extension of my own computing needs for when I am traveling or out-and-around town for meetings and such. An 11″ lightweight computer with a long lasting battery makes a lot of sense, and with my Verizon mifi connectivity I can be connected in the absence of a fixed wifi network.

The Samsung Chromebook is an appealing laptop on several levels. It is lightweight, has great battery performance, features a surprisingly nice keyboard, and good enough performance. It delivers the goods and doesn’t promise any extras. it is certainly no Pixel but it is $250 so from a value perspective it is hard to beat. In addition to the basic features, it includes a couple of USB ports and, surprisingly, a full sized HDMI port; storage is extended with an SDCard slot in the side.

I like what Google did with the launcher and dock, and setup was really straightforward. Performance is, as I noted, good enough, but it really lacks responsiveness. which is to say it just isn’t very snappy. The only significant negative that I can point out is that the display is washed out and generally unimpressive.

The only surprisingly challenging thing to do on the Chromebook is print, but once I figured out how to add a “classic printer” to Google Cloud Print and then shared that across my multiple Google profiles, it worked but clearly Google has some work to do with Cloud Print although competitive offerings from HP and others could fill this gap. Eventually I will replace my printer with one that is cloud-centric, which will also help smooth over this issue.

The display brings up the topic of the Google Pixel, which by all accounts has one of the nicest hardware/software experiences available in the market today, and the display performance and quality is nothing short of phenomenal. However, as good as that is, it is a $1,300 price tag and a larger form factor at 13″, plus the battery life is not very good.

Despite a few shortcomings, I think the Chromebook will find a place in my toolbox and this reflects a broader trend that many people are experiencing where they end up with a proliferating array of devices that either depend on the cloud or are synced to reflect a unified user experience.

What Would Steve Jobs Tell Congress?

Like many I watched the kabuki theater that is Congress perp walking Apple CEO Tim Cook in front of a committee to berate the company for legally applying the tax code, that Congress itself created, to preserve cash using the offshore entities the income was earned in. I was left with the question “would Congress have dared bring Steve Jobs in front of a committee in this manner?” knowing full well that Jobs’ personal popularity and habitual bluntness would have left Congress with proverbial egg on their face.

I also could not help but notice that the CEO of the legendary tax firm with a small manufacturing business on the side, General Electric, was not hauled in front of Congress to explain how not only does GE use the tax code to the full extent but also how they successfully manipulate members of Congress to create new tax subsidies and incentives that they can then exploit for shareholder benefit. as they should. Few members of Congress would want GE exposing the one-hand-washes-the-other hypocrisy that is the intersection of money, politics, and public policy.

What about Cisco? They have over $50 billion in cash and all but $5b of it is offshore. John Chambers is on record pointing out the obvious, U.S. corporate tax law is stunting job growth and forcing companies to invest outside the U.S. Let’s bring Chambers in front of Congress.

However, what is lost in all this is that the companies pay taxes at many levels and the growth they experience economic growth which leads to a myriad of additional tax layers. Directly as a result of strong performance, companies like Apple, Microsoft and Cisco institute share buybacks and dividends which fuel capital gains tax receipts. Microsoft alone has returned $170 billion of cash to investors as a result of buybacks and dividends, which for U.S. investors and entities is a form of income that is then taxed.

To paint successful companies as money grubbing tax cheaters misses the point entirely, and fails to address the structural flaws in the overly complex and burdensome tax system the U.S. currently relies on. Richard Epstein at the Hoover Institution put it succinctly:

And so we are left with a series of distracting hearings meant only to excoriate a profitable American company for making entirely legal, and totally rational, decisions. Those hearings may have been useful if they had addressed serious structural reform. For instance, one possibility for reform is to lower American tax rates, which would induce more businesses to keep operations in this country in the first place. A second, more radical, possibility is to consider shifting to a consumption tax, which would eliminate all the distortions of the current system by gutting the present two-tier corporate tax and allowing the tax-free return of capital from abroad for everyone.  But at this moment, the insatiable demands of the welfare state leave too many misguided champions of tax reform clamoring for more money to fill the federal coffers.

The Wisdom of Being Safe

I was reading this article on the wave of executive departures at HTC on the heals of a successful product, the HTC One, and a clearly unsuccessful launch of the HTC First. The reporting is actually good and highlights the phenomena of the death spiral that many in Silicon Valley are familiar with, as influential people in the company leave a succession of departures is certain to follow and taking with them the ability of the company to seamlessly conceptualize and develop new products that are the lifeblood of technology companies in the consumer space.

One quote caught my attention if for no other reason than it exhibits the vanity of the tech media:

even as reviews have consistently lauded the gorgeous One and bashed the S4′s cheap plastic and comparably safe – even boring – design.

Shocking as it may be to tech reporters and the chattering class of Silicon Valley, consumers clearly don’t give a shit about the fact that the Samsung S4 has a plastic back cover that, like all it’s stamped aluminum competitors, will get covered with a case.

The HTC One has a beautiful form factor but comes up short in significant functional areas that give the S4 a real advantage, and the stripped down Android experience reflects that fact that HTC’s software development has been a problematic area for them more than a desire to deliver a strategic alternative to the market.

The S4, by comparison, delivers a “safe” design that is the successor to the already best selling Android smartphone on the market, the S3, so what did the reviewers expect Samsung to do. cast aside their success and start over? It is entirely illogical that you would take a current generation leader and rethink it. and point in fact the entire iPhone empire is built on product extensions that trace back to v1 in form factor, capabilities and user experience. Where are the critics when discussing that safe platform?

My Next Journey: Ping Identity

I recently wrapped up my transition period out of Get Satisfaction and immediately swung into a new role at Ping Identity. This was no easy decision for me as I continue to support the mission of Get Satisfaction and have invested much of myself in it over the last 3 years. Life in the Valley can be frenetic and the degree of institutional ADHD we exhibit is something I have long been aware of, and as a counterbalance to this I have strived for a high degree of continuity and stability in my professional life while also pushing myself into the next interesting thing. it’s a tough balance to hold but one that gives me a great degree of reward and stimulation.

If you look back at my roles and responsibilities at Get Satisfaction over my tenure there you will see a progression that prepares me for where I am today:

  • In my capacity leading product marketing we focused heavily on how we craft a position that spans the challenge of marketing a service that appeals to consumers but one which the economic buyer is a business. This new normal in enterprise software is here to stay and reflects the consumerization trend that has long been talked about, enterprise software buyers of all stripes are responding to user experience as a primary driver.
  • With the work I did on plans and pricing, later enhanced and executed by other teams in the company, we were able to position to the market a consolidated portfolio of services that could be sold to SMB, mid-market, and large enterprise companies all off the same product platform. In addition to that, we maintained the commitment to freemium to serve the very small segment while contributing to the overall network growth that propelled the company in terms of powerful brand recognition.
  • I led analyst and influencer relations, and with no budget early on and a limited one in just the last year we were able to garner positive coverage and affinity with traditional analysts and market influencers. We employed a different kind of AR strategy, one that relied heavily on social influence and less on economic relationships.
  • I assumed leadership of the SMB business at a time when it had no leadership and with a small team of 2 we reworked the web presentation, instrumented for funnel analytics, A/B tested continuously, and impacted product development with a high priority initiative around the Getting Started user flow, from which the lack of an effective getting started flow contributed heavily to churn.
  • The inflexible legacy billing system was rip-and-replaced under my watch, with a new homegrown subscription management app built as a separate Rails app in the infrastructure and hooked up to Chargify for transaction billing.
  • Shifting over to business development, we broadened the strategic focus of our efforts to target additional CRM vendors, enterprise marketing applications, and resellers. My last official act was representing the company at SugarCon with new reseller and development partner DRI-Global. We also launched a highly innovative Marketo integration blueprint and a host of 3rd party app support. Resellers in Latin America started to produce revenue, a first for the company.

I feel good about what I accomplished at Get Satisfaction and rather than running away from the company I left running to something else. Enter Ping Identity, a company I have had a long association with as a result of my work at SAP Ventures. I have maintained a relationship with Andre Durand, the CEO/founder, and while catching up with him on general topics he highlighted the challenges they were facing as they moved to subscription economics while simultaneously delivering impressive growth through the traditional enterprise, and then using SaaS as a distribution channel to reach customers of the ISVs that were SAML-enabling their applications. Right up my alley.

The timing was perfect because I was coming to the realization that 2 things were happening in identity, the first being that a world without passwords was not only achievable but would also drive significant benefits for end users and vendors alike. There isn’t a day that goes buy without cringing at the experience of a login screen for which I don’t recall the password. While Facebook, Twitter and Google all offer compelling authentication capabilities they are not without limitations, principally in the manner by which entitlements and privileges are assigned. SAML is an approach that offers more extensibility and security integrity, and also spans workforce management to consumer identity.

The BYOD movement is also driving an interesting extended consequence related to bring your own identity. Consumer identity and workforce identity should merge in a federated state, offering portability and the ability to go beyond identity as an access and authentication technology to identity as profile management. Richer profile management drives future innovation in applications of all kinds as developers evolve to focus on user experiences that are highly individualized as a result of what people declare about themselves and what systems are able to infer about them.

Lastly, great identity access management should not be exclusive to large enterprises managing employee populations and public facing websites pre-occupied with the password protection alone. Businesses of all sizes and kinds should have available to them feature rich identity technology that is both affordable and business transformative.

This is where I cut to Ping. a recognized leader in a space that requires technical excellence and industry recognition in order be a leader. Identity is not the province of 2 engineers, a dog and a dream. which is why the landscape of companies in the space doesn’t look like a map of the stars. Ping offers cutting edge SAML-based identity technology to large enterprises for workforce management and customer identity, while also leading a charge into the cloud with PingOne, a unified platform for integrating single sign-on technology across hundreds of cloud apps.

I am leading the goto market for PingOne to SMB and ISV segments, which includes the web assets and self-service capabilities that cut into the product itself. My challenges in this role are well aligned to what I did at Get Satisfaction and if you look at the summary I detailed above you could pretty much check the boxes on all of them for my new role. I am excited on many fronts but probably most of all by the challenge of growing into a new space and working with a team of people who exhibit a team culture that is built on shared success and commitment to the mission with an appropriate sense of urgency about getting it done.

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Windows 8: Return of the Start Menu

The Verge is reporting that the iconic Start Menu will be returning in Windows 8.1. For those of you that don’t follow such things, Microsoft removed the start menu is Win8 in when they replaced the desktop as the primary UX canvas in favor of the new tile interface, called Modern (originally called Metro).

Removing the menu would probably have been a non-issue if the user experience of traditional and Modern designed apps were seamless but there is a critical distinction that makes this all but impossible to rectify, the current generation of Modern apps run in a dedicated focus, meaning they consume the entire screen and have no menu overlay that is omnipresent (the Charm bar gets close but you still have to swipe it to see it and those menus are almost entirely app focused). Meanwhile, for popular windows app like Office which run in the traditional Desktop mode the user spends most of their time not in Modern but in desktop mode. The result of this is that in order to access a different app you have to jump back to the Modern tile interface and run another app which takes you back to desktop (there are other ways to do this but that is the rough cut, it’s an extra step and a minor hassle every time).

I am happily using a Lenovo Yoga in laptop and tablet mode, and I have found that when I am in tablet mode I want to use the tile interface exclusively while in laptop mode all I care about is the desktop. The fact that Windows can accommodate both modes is itself no small feat and points to a major success point for the new Windows. but the forced convergence that resulted from removing the Start menu doesn’t work and they should bring it back. I don’t want Microsoft to become the new Apple, where the only way I can do things is the way that the ghost of Steve Jobs declares acceptable, I want options.

Much has been written about the decline of PC sales globally and almost without exception the blame has been pinned on Windows 8. I’m not buying that argument and here’s why, if Windows 8 were causing buyers to flee we would see large gains in competitive platforms, which for the sake of this argument is really easy to identify, Apple.

This is not happening, what is happening is that people are increasingly buying tablets, netbooks, and other alternative devices instead of new desktop and laptop computers. And why shouldn’t they when even 5 year old hardware performs good enough in a web browser dominated world? I feel no imperative to upgrade Windows and Mac hardware in my household (other than my internal geek factor) while we have been adding a never ending stream of mobile  devices to our mix, from tablets to the Logitech internet radio I bought a few months ago.

I am confident that Microsoft will turn the crank a few more times to tighten up Windows 8, and I am looking forward to new hardware innovations that blur the lines between mobile and portable, desktop and tablet, and I hope there will be more hardware that offers Android and Windows mode options, such as the big Asus tablet/desktop that was unveiled last month.

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Lenovo Yoga–Straight up With a Twist

I have been using a Lenovo Yoga laptop for a month and like it enough to report back on my impressions. This laptop replaces an Asus Zenbook Touch that I had been using and generally liked but in order to maximize the touch aspects of Windows 8 I found that having a touch screen simply wasn’t enough, a full convertible laptop is what makes the experience much more accommodating of touch interactions.

Back in January I wrote about my initial reaction to Windows 8 and highlighted a couple of aspects of the hardware experience that needed attention. The Asus Zenbook Touch is a beautiful piece of hardware that comes close to beating the Mac Air at its own game, it is blazingly fast, has a beautiful display, is thinner than an Air and better to look at. The Zenbook has fast USB 3.0 ports and a very compact power supply that is definitely inspired by Mac, and has a backlit chiclet-style keyboard that is comfortable and did I mention backlit?

The two shortcomings are brutal, the Zenbook touchpad is so awful they should never have shipped the computer with it, and the wifi is wonky, prone to going dark enough that using the USB Ethernet adapter is a good call. at least Asus gives you the connectors, unlike Apple. Based on the touchpad alone, I would not recommend the Zenbook to anyone.

I noticed a couple of other things in my foray into the world of Win8. The first is that the performance is really good across the board but battery life is highly variable. The Zenbook can be pushed to 5+ hours of battery life but I really want more than that because I often find myself unplugged for long periods of time. Most of the ultrabooks come with 4gb of RAM and 128gb of SSD, both are acceptable and Windows itself is remarkably high performing on 4gb but some apps (cough, Chrome) are not so well behaved and if you are like me and have dozens of tabs open, along with a wide range of apps. you will run into low memory warnings (which to Microsoft’s credit don’t cause erratic behaviors but you still have to close stuff). The 128gb of SSD is manageable because I store almost everything in the cloud, but I just wanted more to have the option of keeping things local for offline use.

The biggest issue with Win8 and touch is that you really want to use it as a tablet so unless your ultrabook has a removable display or can perform some unnatural act to become a tablet, you will be left wanting more. My choice for this was to buy the Lenovo Yoga with 256gb of SSD and 8gb of RAM (and yes, I did get it in orange!).

As a laptop this computer delivers and then some. It’s fast, very fast, and has a super comfortable rubberized coating on the palm rests. The keyboard took a couple of days to adapt to but is good to use, the battery life is in the 7-8 hour range, and most importantly, everything – including the touchpad – just works.

I do miss the wedge shape of the Zenbook, and would also suggest to Lenovo that they trim off 1/2″ off each side for a much more compact form factor because there is a lot of bezel that adds to the overall package. The instant on could be a little more instant but honestly it is a legitimate “instant on”. Lastly, even though the power supply is compact and svelte, it has a lot of power chord off one end and an unwieldy one on the other. pay attention to Asus and Apple on this point, their design direction is a good one. Another USB port would be welcome and why USB 3.0 on just one of the two ports? I do appreciate the HDMI output but had to buy an HDMI-VGA adapter, which is cheap enough that it should just come with the machine.

Folded over into tablet form the 13″ 3.3 lb tablet would not be my first mobile choice but I regularly use it in meetings, sitting in bed, and on airplanes (no seat back reclining into your open laptop!!!). It is a great way to use Win8 and of all the convertibles I have tried, this one is most natural and confidence inspiring with regard to build quality.

Folded into tablet form the keyboard deactivates but you still feel it, so I bought the sleeve that Lenovo sells and sleeve up the keyboard half of the package when using it as a tablet. This works great and is more confortable because the Yoga can generate some heat (maybe it is more appropriately named the Bikram) so the sleeve solves two issues without adding bulk or complexity.

As I wrote back in January, Microsoft really needs to get a handle on the integrated hardware/software value proposition for a better customer experience but what I really appreciate is that I am not limited to what Apple alone decides to build, as is the case in the Mac world. The range of hardware configurations and options is impressive and if one ultrabook doesn’t work for you then you can simply shop around and find something different. Windows 8 as a touch experience is compelling and while I would appreciate refinements that meld the old and new Windows better, as well as provide for more context switching and interoperability in the dedicated app focus mode, I am still very happy with Windows 8.

PS- as I was writing this I noticed for the first time the irony of going from zen to yoga.

Ron Johnson Out: The Customer Experience Files

I was in a cab yesterday with my wife, who works in the fashion industry, and she casually mentioned that Ron Johnson was out at JCP. I can imagine that everyone in the retail and fashion industry was aware of this 12 hours before the rest of us.

This morning I was watching Squawk Box on CNBC and Richard Branson along with Virgin America CEO David Cush were being interviewed. Cush was asked about JCP and replied that the key lesson is that you don’t destroy your existing business model before ensuring that the new one works. This is good advice but I think it radically oversimplifies challenges at JCP and creates false comfort for business executives prone to thinking that methodical change is better than radical change.

JCP is interesting to look at from the standpoint of customer experience and Johnson deserves credit for doing things that ultimately will prove to be essential retailers in all segments. What Johnson got wrong is that brand doesn’t drive customer experience, but rather brand reflects customer experience and a new logo, splashy store displays and forward leaning messaging can’t overcome what happens when actual people interact with the environment you create and worse, interact with other people called employees. If everyone isn’t up to the new task you will end up failing and doing real damage, this is the lesson I took away from the Ron Johnson era at JCP.

Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement IndexBrand Keys is a company that measures brand engagement, specifically the emotional engagement that customers have with the brands they interact with. The 2013 survey was revealing on several levels in that across the 54 retail categories they survey, 39,000 consumers, several consistent themes are evident and all refute what Johnson actually did at JCP, which had a brand engagement score that s between 11-20 points below retail category leaders, they have been demonstrably failing at connecting with customers.

Customers today connect more strongly on brand values than at any previous time and this is critical because even in durable goods categories you don’t purchase things one-off. you come back and buy again, or make purchases of products in adjacent categories that reflect that brand experience you are striving for. Brands that have had consistent brand positions and deliver on that with everyday action also benefit from higher brand engagement, and companies like J. Crew, Apple, and Virgin America are good examples of this.

JCP is a mess and likely will not get better, they have lost connection with customers, who are now shopping at Macy’s and Kohl’s and unlikely to return. The physical retail experience is improved but the integration of digital and physical is weak, impairing their ability to convert customers from other brands, but most debilitating is the demoralized workforce that is the front line of customer experience. It’s a death spiral and I would not be surprised if JCP were acquired in the next 12 months. The new normal is unforgiving and punishing for brands that ignore it.

Customer Experience: The Little Things Edition

I took my children to In-N-Out Burger for lunch today and before we left I wanted to wash my hands. Lunch was enjoyable, the staff was pleasant, and the overall experience was up to their usual standard but the one thing I really noticed was how much paper the automated dispenser gave me when I finished washing my hands.

We have all had the experience in a public restroom where you do the hand wavy thing in front of the red dot and about 3 inches of paper spits out. so you do it again, and again, and yet again before you get enough to complete the drying part of the operation. It is obvious why businesses do this, they 1) never bother to adjust the machine when it is installed, 2) think they are going to save money on paper towels under the belief that we are too stupid to get the machine to give us more paper, and/or 3) just don’t care.

In-N-Out pays attention to the small details because they give you enough to dry off and it is representative of their entire operation, the small things add up and impact your overall experience. It may just be a burger and fries but they have set a standard for fast food that others covet so the next time you think something is too small to care about I would urge you to think about washing your hands.

Bing/Google Now: Context Wins

I woke up this morning and my Galaxy Tablet reminded me that I have some phone calls, an offsite meeting that will take approximately 20 minutes to drive to, and some interesting news as well as a weather report. It’s easy to overlook how far we have come in the quest to provide useful personal assistants.

Screenshot_2013-03-12-09-20-01While catching up on some reading two articles jumped out at me that really drove home this point, the first is really incremental in nature about Google Now coming to the desktop and the Chrome OS.

Google Now is something that snuck up on me and despite my initial cynicism it has grown on me. When I updated my tablet to Jelly Bean I stumbled on the Now feature when I held the Home button for a little too long. The cards are still pretty sparse but I really like how it pulls things out of my email and present additional contextual information like directions and time to drive, and package tracking information. This is really useful and unobtrusive. I don’t have to manage it, things just happen.

I only wish that Now would support multiple accounts.

The more interesting news piece I read this morning was about Microsoft’s research project, coincidentally (or not) called Bing Now. What is really fascinating about this is how Microsoft is looking beyond what you have on your device and realizing the greater vision of “an internet of things”.

Heavily invested in the vocabulary of crowdsoucing, I think this misses the point that it’s not about crowdsourcing but rather networked devices. Crowdsourcing implies co-creation, being able to find restaurant that isn’t crowded is incredibly appealing and not at all a function of crowdsourcing in the traditional sense of the word. Having said that, if Microsoft can deliver even just a small part of this they will have a winner.