Tag Archive for Venture

When you are 10x behind in mobile apps, your tools probably ought to be 10x better

As part of “my Windows Phone trial”:http://theludwigs.com/2012/04/switching-to-the-nokia-lumia-900-for-a-while/, I am going to dig into the developer tools. I’ve written a little throwaway iOS app, and i’ve written one with “Parse”:https://parse.com/ (super easy!). So I’d like to understand the experience of writing a Windows Phone app.

“App Hub”:http://create.msdn.com/en-us/home/getting_started seems to be the starting place. Like a lot of marketing-driven websites, there are a lot of words up here, and indices of more words, and pointers to more words. Not a lot of help for me to actually do something — Parse is a nice constrast, sample Parse code on the landing page and a signup button right on the first page which leads to a very simple signup. You can get developing with Parse in literally a minute; not so with App Hub.

Anyway, I followed the pointers and installed the “winphone sdk”:http://www.microsoft.com/download/en/details.aspx?displaylang=en&id=27570. There are some words up here that talk about getting a Visual Studio Express edition and I am thinking, thank goodness, because VS is kind of a beast. Well I was wrong, I seem to have gotten a pretty significant chunk of VS with templates for all kinds of code projects. It actually took me a while to figure out where the templates were for winphone projects, and I actually found several, and couldn’t figure out which was the right one to start with. (I did have a version of VS installed a year ago and uninstalled it, but perhaps it left some residue behind which made my VS Express look more complicated)

So I figure I should “sign up with apphub”:http://create.msdn.com/en-US/home/membership and get a developer account assuming there will be some guidance on what to do next. Well apparently tho that is a hard thing to do. My credit card transaction keeps getting turned down with no explanation. Munging thru forums and trading email with apphub support has revealed that this is a common issue, there is something very off with the Microsoft billing system. People wait for days to get their account approved. I’ve been told I need to use IE9 to sign up, that I have to visit 5 different subdomains and make sure my account information is 100% consistent across all those, that I may just want to give up and try again with a new account. I’ve tried everything to no avail. Oh and the billing site is incredibly slow.

So I struggle on. I have email in to several people for help. But some broad prescriptive advice for MSFT at this point: When you are 10x behind in mobile apps and mobile app developers, you should probably aspire to have tools and a developer program that are 10x easier to use. Some specific ideas:

* Fix billing. I’d argue to get rid of it all together, let any damn fool in the developer program, MSFT needs developers. The billing system has clearly been poor for years, it needs some energy applied to it.
* Radically simplify VS. If what I am seeing is what all developers see, it is too much. Too many templates, frameworks, language choices, etc.
* Make the developer website more about doing, less about telling. Developers should be developing code in seconds and minutes, not hours. They can go munge thru detailed technical material later, get them up and running in a dev environment with sample code fast.
* Melding the above two ideas, look at something like “Cloud9″:http://c9.io/. Host a dev environment right on the site, require no download or install, let people start coding in seconds. Cloud storage of code so they can pick up their coding anywhere, a cloud-based testing environment (I’m sure some of our portfolio companies like “Skytap”:www.skytap.com would be happy to help). Make it dramatically easier to get a dev and test environment set up.
* Talk with the “Parse”:http://parse.com guys, they have figured out how to make it super easy to develop mobile apps, solving a lot of the backend issues that many developers don’t need to deal with.

This is just the beginning. I am sure MSFT has plenty of smart folks who have ideas. It is not a time to hold back, I’d look hard at bold steps to really change the playing field.

UPDATE: Some nice folks at MSFT helped me get this solved, but in a nonscalable way. Appreciate the help but doesn’t solve the problem for the mass market.

Check out Motif Investing and help me win an iPad

I love Motif and if “you check it out I could win an iPad”:http://motif.extole.com/a/clk/2JwBDQ. OK I will probably have to give the iPad back as we are investors but still I do love Motif, it is worth looking at if you do any investing whatsoever — a much more natural way to invest.

Skeptical about voice control

There was a “Sunday NYT article on voice recognition”:http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/technology/nuance-communications-wants-a-world-of-voice-recognition.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=dragon%20tv&st=cse and how we are all going to control our TVs and other devices with voice. Building on the Siri wave, there is a popular belief that voice will become a significant or even dominant way we interact with devices and services.

I’m a big believer in voice. Ignition is an investor in “Spoken”:http://www.spoken.com/ who is doing great with their existing cloud voice processing business, and have some great ideas for the future. We’re an investor in “AVST”:http://www.avst.com/, “Twisted Pair”:http://www.twistpair.com/, “Public Mobile”:http://www.publicmobile.ca/pmconsumer/ — all voice-based businesses, all doing great. People are never going to get tired of talking to one another.

And that is what voice is really all about — people talking to people, not to devices. I will invest all day long in technologies that improve people talking to people — making it easier, more accessible, cheaper, augmenting with additional services, hosting conversations, etc.

On the other hand, we don’t talk to our tools and instruments. We touch them. A well designed tool or instrument fits the hands naturally, and in the hand of a skilled practitioner allows great creativity and/or great performances. The feedback during its use is important, we are very sensitive to the feedback and can adjust our use in very fine increments. We don’t attempt to use voice which is an imprecise, error-prone method — in fact, trying to talk very precisely can be quite annoying and unnatural.

So are our computational devices more like tools, or more like people? Do we want to interact with them as tools, or as people? My gut says more like tools, and that we will be more effective using touch and gestures than voice.

There are always going to be edge cases in which voice control is preferred — people with disabilities, handsfree situations. But I’m not convinced voice control will become significant.

Great visit to Tier3 this week

I had the chance to meet “Jared Wray”:http://www.jaredwray.com/ at “Tier3″:http://tier3.com/ (one of our portfolio investments) on Friday and I was incredibly energized by the meeting. Jared is a star and Tier3 has a huge future.

I’m not generally an enterprise IT guy. I’ve worn an IT hat at times, but always for small businesses or small offices. I’ve done some enterprise app development, but eons ago. I’ve worked on software teams that have sold into enterprises and have spent time working on features to support enterprises, so I have some sense of their issues, but I am no expert. So take my views with a grain of salt.

With that caveat — wow have these guys done a terrific job creating a relevant cloud offering for enterprises. It seems super easy to roll apps out to their service because Tier3 supports a huge range of enterprise software with preconfigured orchestration blueprints for setting it all up; they support enterprise security requirements, they understand and provide great monitoring, they provide enterprise SLAs, all while delivering the great cloud attributes like elasticity. And with their new “service provider partners”:http://blog.tier3.com/index.php/2012/02/federated-cloud-release-tier-3-cfn-services, there are going to be a ton of hosting options in locations that work for enterprises, to serve the need to “hug your servers”.

It seems like a no brainer for people to try and adopt Tier3:

* If you are in enterprise IT and want to move some of your apps to the cloud, this seems like the way to go. Or at least consider. And with great “no-cost self service activation”:https://www.tier3.com/Activate/, there is really no reason not to try.
* If you are a startup targeting the enterprise, Tier3 provides an environment giving you access to the computing environment of the enterprise. Again free to sign up and a pay as you go model, so why not try?
* If you are a service provider and want to provide enterprise grade services for your enterprise customers, a great set of services available for adoption.

We (Ignition) really have to step up and help Tier3 get the word out about what they are doing. They are already growing at a great clip but we can and should help them do more. They need great people in sales, marketing, and product development. And they need trials from customers and feedback.

Very exciting, great to be working with these guys.

Made my first contribution to a Kickstarter project, the Zooka

Seems like a nice speaker — “the Zooka”:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1733547063/zooka-bluetooth-speaker-for-your-ipad?ref=email — (though they probably have a trademark issue to resolve) and I’m glad to support a Northwest project. It is also exciting to see the diversity of projects up on Kickstarter, and nice to see that people are willing to pay for value and creativity. After 15 years of people demanding more and more free content and service on the Internet, any shift back towards sustainable business models seems good. Personally I feel way better about paying for something, rather than getting “free” content and having my attention sold to the highest bidder without my involvement and consent.

MSFT and the decline of the PC hardware ecosystem

In the late 80s, IBM attempted to reassert control over the PC hardware platform with the introduction of the PS/2 and its proprietary “MicroChannel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Channel_architecture architecture. The cloners fought back, customers voted with their feet, the PS/2 initiative failed, and the era of open PC hardware continued and flourished. This was hugely beneficial for MSFT as a thousand PC OEMs bloomed, PC-based innovation surged and costs dropped, and MSFT software rode the wave of market expansion.

And it was great for end users. Not only because it drove system costs down, but it also created a rich market of add-on products — everyone could mix and match hardware to create their optimal system, whether they cared about cost or performance or maintainability or upgradability or whatever. Corporations could spec out and build standard low cost machines, enthusiasts could build super-tweaked machines, verticals could build out specialty machines, all on the same open hardware platform.

In the last 15 years, though, the market has shifted dramatically towards the laptop form factor. This shift has been a relative disaster for MSFT. The industry has moved away from an open hardware chassis with mix-and-match components, to closed tightly-engineered all-in-one machines. This shift has played to Apple’s strengths in design and integration and has negated many of the benefits of the PC ecosystem. The PC industry is still struggling to figure out how to regain design and profit momentum — Intel’s “Ultrabook”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrabook effort being the latest scheme. But the Ultrabook is just a direct response to the MacBook, it does nothing to recapture the open hardware experience of the 90s.

The open hardware community still exists in various forms, but is no longer focused on the PC platform and is not much of an asset for MSFT. Enthusiasts still build PCs, mostly for gaming — “Maximum PC”:http://www.maximumpc.com/best-of-the-best for instance has a good guide to components, “Newegg”:http://www.newegg.com is the place to buy. But this isn’t mainstream any more. The “maker” community is vibrant but is focused on other platforms largely — “Arduino”:http://www.arduino.cc/, the “Kickstarter”:http://www.kickstarter.com community, etc. The vibe and energy around open hardware is great, but it is no longer tied to the PC experience and is no longer an asset for MSFT.

MSFT has always been great at chasing taillights and is hard at work supporting the Ultrabook, competing with the Apple stores at retail, pushing Windows Phone, etc. But chasing Apple’s taillights results in products that are more and more like Apple’s — fully integrated hardware/software/services, a captive retail experience. MSFT has to do all this, the mainstream of the market is here, but there is nothing distinctive about the resultant products and experience. The Ultrabook/Windows/Microsoft Store products may equal the Apple experience, and may offer users a few more choices of hardware brands (does anyone care?), but the experience won’t stand out. Necessary work but not sufficient to recapture thought leadership in the market — at the end of the day, MSFT will be able to claim parity but no more than that.

If I was in a leadership role at MSFT, I’d invest in strategies to recreate the open hardware platform dynamic around the Windows platform. It is not obvious how to do so with the laptop and tablet as the mainstream platform, but I would spend $100s of millions trying. MSFT clearly has the cash to spend on new frontiers and new adventures, a couple hundred million on an effort to change the basis of competition in the PC market seems like a wise bet, even if it fails.

How about putting a “maker’s corner” in every retail store with modified cases and modified machines, maybe even workshops? Get the energy of the PC gaming community into the store, let people see this energy. How can the laptop design be modified to support add on hardware — super high speed optical expansion busses, wireless high speed expansion busses, novel expansion chassis ideas? Sifteo cubes are kind of cool, can this idea be used to provide hardware extensions to laptops? Are there other ways to “snap on” hardware to extend the laptop or tablet, using bluetooth or induction or other mechanisms? Can MSFT seed the maker community with funds or tools? Can MSFT embrace Arduino somehow, or Kickstarter? Could the PC be the hub for thousands of Arduino-based sensors and actuators and gadgets? These ideas are all admittedly poorly thought out, and I am not sure any one idea is right, or if any will work.

But I would spend a lot of money chasing after any idea that would move away from closed all-in-one hardware designs, and I would experiment with many ways to reinject open hardware dynamics back into the PC/tablet market. Ultrabook is not this — it is a fine and adequate taillight chaser, but it won’t shift competitive balance back in MSFT’s favor.

This is not the only reason for MSFT’s stagnation in the last decade, there are many other aspects to consider, but the dwindling of the open hardware ecosystem has been a loss of MSFT. For another take on Apple’s success against MSFT in the last decade, check out “Rich’s analysis”:http://www.themarketingplaybook.com/2012/02/stocks-bonds-commodities-and-apple/ — the observations about vertical vs horizontal integration ring true.

Ignition news roundup — Symplified, Whiptail

First off, we are surving the 2012 Snowpocalypse. Office traffic is light but folks are here.

On the business front, it was “announced that we led a round”:http://techcrunch.com/2012/01/18/ignition-leads-20m-round-in-cloud-security-and-identity-company-symplified/ in “Symplified”:http://www.symplified.com/. Great company building some pretty essential tools to manage employee identity and engagement across the web, can’t imagine how companies manage their voice and presence without this.

We also “joined the investor group”:http://www.geekwire.com/2012/ignition-bankrolls-flash-storage-startup-whiptail behind “Whiptail”:http://www.whiptail.com/, who build high-scale SSD arrays to replace spinning disks. Spinning disks — seems like we will look back at these in 100 years and laugh, or at least class them as a steampunk kind of gadget.

Excited to work with both companies.

Korrio’s work on sports and head injuries is a good step

One of the companies in our portfolio, “Korrio”:https://korrio.com/, is bringing out tools to allow “parents to monitor the brain health of their child athletes”:http://www.techflash.com/seattle/2012/01/startup-korrios-focus-on-head-injuries.html. This is a great step, I wish this had been around when we had young student athletes in the family. You don’t have to dig around very much to see the frightful effects of head impacts in sports, and anything that raises awareness of the issue and provides tools to manage is a very good thing. There is a lot more to do, I’d love to see impact monitors in helmets that track instantaneous and cumulative impact forces, but this is a great first step, awesome to see this work happening.

No time to blog, so here’s a link roundup

* “Cutting the Cord on Cable”:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203550304577138841278154700.html. Wish I could get there but live HD sports still keeps me stuck to cable/satellite provider. I’ve tried the streaming options and they are weak — poor selection of games/sources (I need ESPN/ABC channels + BTN + Fox Sports channels + upcoming Pac12 network), lots of stutter, not HD content. I will probably be one of the last cable subscribers in the country.
* “Men with deep voices lack sperm”:http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-01-men-deep-voice-lacking-sperm.html. I was a tenor in choir.
* “Do programming puzzles in interviews work?”:http://gadgetopia.com/post/7314. I don’t think I’ve ever asked these kinds of questions, or at least not in 20 years.
* “Gamification sucks”:http://inessential.com/2011/12/23/gamification_sucks. Respect your users.
* “The Verge”:http://www.theverge.com/ and “The Wirecutter”:http://thewirecutter.com/ — good tech sites.
* “If you are busy, you are doing something wrong”:http://calnewport.com/blog/2011/11/11/if-youre-busy-youre-doing-something-wrong-the-surprisingly-relaxed-lives-of-elite-achievers/.
* “10 new-ish programming languages”:http://www.infoworld.com/d/application-development/10-programming-languages-could-shake-it-181548. WOuld like to learn more about Chapel, haXe, X10, OPA.
* “DSLRs are a dying breed”:http://www.stuckincustoms.com/2012/01/04/dslrs-are-a-dying-breed-3rd-gen-cameras-are-the-future/. Not another “camera phones are going to win” article, but a smarter take on the mirrorless trend.

Feels like the Seattle economy is on the cusp of an expansion

I had a great week last week that left me feeling incredibly optimistic about the Seattle economy.

First, Techstars Seattle Demo Day. What a super event, “lots of coverage of it”:http://www.geekwire.com/2011/favorite-pitches-techstars-demo-day-red. Great young companies, enthusiasm, great pitches, good progress in fundraising. Big audience with great energy. Super job by @andysack and everyone involved, a model for everyone else in the Seattle community who wants to nurture startups. We need more of these events, not just in cloud/web. I’ve seen a lot of entrepreneurship events at UW and they are constrained by mentoring, hiring, seed financing — exactly what the techstars guys are providing. One of the companies, “Romotive”:http://romotive.com/, has also done a great job leveraging Kickstarter and have generated a lot of early revenue — the rise of crowd-sourced pre-sales/funding is a fascinating and positive evolution.

Everyone was hiring at the event. As an indicator of how desperate people are to hire, I had two guys try to hire me. If you think I am the answer to your problem, you are pretty desperate.

Then I spent the better part of a day in a meeting with the “UW College of Engineering Visiting Committee”:http://www.engr.washington.edu/mycoe/committees/visit.html. Some great data on the College of Engineering — most programs are massively oversubscribed, turning away students in bunches, doing a great job placing students. Great evolution in programs, great facilities, great staffing. The College could probably push out many more engineers and is constrained by state economic policies; with tweaks to tuition and governance, it seems like the pipeline could open much more broadly. And we also had a chance to listen to President Young speak who seems to have a very open attitude about IP licensing, he seems to recognize that getting IP out of the university and to work is important.

I left the two days feeling like a lot of piece parts are coming together fast. Seed funding. Crowd sourcing. Mentoring. Training/Education. And with iteration and tweaking, we could see an explosion of economic growth in the Seattle area. Exciting times.

The web interface for my house is woefully inadequate.

So “Nest”:www.nest.com is the newest shiny toy for the tech industry and media to get all excited about, a ton of coverage this week — for a thermostat. Obviously some of the ardor will fade — how long can anyone stay excited about a thermostat? But I do think there is a theme here which has some enduring value.

I’m not really that excited about the UI and learning features of the Nest thermostat. I am able to navigate my smart thermostat today, and I just don’t need to futz with it very often. In our new house it took me a couple days to get things where I wanted them but I’ve moved on and haven’t had to look back.

But I am totally excited about the remote access for the Nest thermostat, the web interface. Our houses are the biggest asset we own, and the cloud presence of our house is either missing or spewed all around the web in random places. There are so many things I should be able to do:

* Remote utility management. Remote thermostat is a nice start. I want remote utility management in general — what’s the temp right now, what’s my water usage, change my temp, change my water heater temp, turn on/off my sprinklers, check my power usage, turn on/off appliances/circuits, check my usage and billing history, etc. I can get pieces of this but it is hard hard hard to get it all and to integrate it all into a single cloud interface.
* Remote security. Webcam monitoring, alarm monitoring, history of access to house, “remote door lock management”:http://theludwigs.com/2011/10/anyone-have-experience-with-wireless-deadbolts-from-schlage-kwikset-yale/. Again you can get piece parts of this but cobbling together is a significant pain.
* Remote doorbell. When someone rings my doorbell, I want an instant notification on my smartphone, I want to see the video feed from my door, and I want to be able to talk thru the intercom. The person at the door should have no idea if I’m in my kitchen or on a business trip. This is part of the security topic but is more compelling than most of the security features.
* Bills. Utility bills, consumption history, how I compare to others, bill payment.
* Financial info. Mortgage status — balance, rate, is it time to refi. The estimated sale value of my house. Mortgage document storage. Tracking of improvements to the house — costs, documentation — so I can correctly calculate cost basis at sale time.
* Service. All the warranty terms and docs for all the appliances and other features of my house. A place to track service records, to record preferred vendors, to get vendor recommendations. A service advisor — what maintenance should I expect to do in the next year based on what is known about my house — time for roof inspection, approaching lifetime of water heaters, time to repaint, what is my likely cost in the next year for all this.

You can get a ton of this info today but it is spewed all over the web. To access all the info about your house, you would have to access the Nest site, any smart metering site, a remote security site (or several for webcam, door locks, monitoring service), each of the utility websites, your bill payment web site, your mortgage provider website, zillow, redfin, etc.

I’d love to have a portal that integrates all this via user configurable widgets into a single interface — my home at a glance. And gives me great mobile access to all the info and features. And just gets better as I add nicely designed devices into the house — a Nest thermostat, a great doorbell/webcam, internet-controllable door locks, etc.

I’m sure the Nest guys are thinking broadly about the entire space, with a general name like Nest they must have ambitions beyond thermostats. I’m excited to watch their evolution. I’d love to have better command of the largest asset I own.

I’ve never used a QR code in my life and can’t imagine why I would.

“Daring Fireball”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2011/10/21/qr-codes points to a “pretty thorough takedown of QR codes”:http://www.imediaconnection.com/article_full.aspx?id=30267 as used in print ads. The original design goal — Toyota invented these to track parts — makes sense, but jamming these into consumer media is just strange.

* Users can already type in your URL or a sentence, or speak into Siri, or do an image search with their phone. Is taking a snap of this code thing really so much better?
* There’s a history of companies trying to stuff proprietary ID systems in between users and product/service providers. These visual codes are one such thing. AOL Keywords, RealNames are text-based equivalents. They all try to get advertisers to stuff these in ads, but I don’t see how this really serves users or advertisers, it mostly just serves the companies with the proprietary ID system.
* Ultimately, if your product/ad/message is so forgettable that you think jamming a QR code or text string in will help, well, there is a deeper problem.

Photostream is cute, but what I really want is Aperture/iPhoto in the cloud

So “I don’t really get iCloud storage yet”:http://theludwigs.com/2011/10/im-struggling-to-understand-why-i-would-ever-use-icloud-storage/, and “Photostream doesn’t really accomodate all my DSLR pictures well”:http://theludwigs.com/2011/10/icloud-photostream-and-dslrs-dont-seem-to-be-a-great-fit/. So rather than just whine about what I don’t have, what do I really want?

First — I have a 203G (gigabyte) Aperture library today, that is where my primary photo storage is. Digging into this a little:

* 54G is thumbnails, previews, cache of various sorts. 27G of thumbnails alone! Impressive use of disk space, Aperture. Clearly the team has embraced the idea that disk space is cheap and is getting cheaper. There are probably some settings I could tweak to trim the size of all this at the cost of performance, but whatever, disk space IS cheap, 30% overhead is probably not a ridiculous design objective. This is all derived data tho and could be trimmed, dropped, whatever, as I think about cloud storage.
* My masters are 149G. A mix of RAW and JPG depending on which camera/scanner I used and how long ago I took — tending towards more RAW over time.
** 19G from this year
** 34G from 2010
** 25G from 2009
** 71G from earlier years.

Lets assume I continue to take pictures at the last 3 year average rate for some time, that is about 25gig of new photos every year, not accounting for inflation in photo size due to better quality capture chips, “light field cameras”:http://www.lytro.com/cameras, etc. OK so you probably have to assume some growth in that 25gig of new storage a year.

Cloud storage of photos — is it important? Hugely so, if my house is burning down, I do not want to be running back in to save a hard disk, photos are emotionally very important. And I do NOT want to have to pick and choose which photos I store in the cloud — too many photos, not enough time, I just want the entire set up in the cloud. I really just want my entire Aperture (and iPhoto) collection replicated to the cloud automagically. And then I need some modest access control features on the folders in the cloud so that I can share selected photo sets with family members, etc.

So I want a cloud storage solution that gives me ~200gig of storage today at a reasonable price, and if I think about the next couple years, a clear path to 300-400gig. And with good web access with some security. What are my choices today?

* iCloud doesn’t begin to work. Aperture doesn’t really talk to it except for Photostream. The max storage I can buy is 55gig. There are no access controls. Doesn’t work along almost every dimension.
* Dropbox. I can get 100G for $240 a year with a nice web interface and some sharing controls. I could even get the team license, store up to 350G, but for $795 a year. If I had this, I could just move my Aperture library into my dropbox folder and voila, it would be in the cloud, on my other machines, etc. However — the Aperture library folder is not really meant to be browsed by humans, the masters are chopped up into some funky balanced tree of directories. Seems like Aperture needs to learn how to work with shared storage. But I could get everything in dropbox, with a very easy UI for me, but at a high price, and probably the ability to share folders with family members would be hard to realize.
* Box.net. Well I get 50G free with their iPad offer, so they pretty much trump iCloud. I could get up to 500G in a business plan for $180/year per user. Similar pros and cons as with Dropbox, but pricing seems better.
* “Smugmug”:http://www.smugmug.com. This is what I use today. There is an Aperture plugin, I can save from Aperture. The bad part about this is that it is not automagic — I have to intentionally move folders up there, not happy about that. But — unlimited storage, at $40-150 per year for jpg, some extra cost but still cheap if you want RAW. A great interface for sharing, completely customizable, printing integration, etc.

For now …. Smugmug is the way to go, but as storage costs drop, I can see flipping to box.net or dropbox at some point. I’d give up some of smugmug’s great interface for admin control but that is overkill for me anyway. If Apple made this all work natively in Aperture at a competitive cost, that would be fine too. For people with a more modest set of photos, the Box.net 50G free offer for iPad/iPhone users seems like an awesome option.

I’m struggling to understand why I would ever use iCloud storage.

I’m struggling to understand why I would ever use iCloud storage. After a couple days of tinkering, I have two sets of data in iCloud — device backups, and Pages/Keynote docs.

* I really don’t get the value of device backups. My apps are all recoverable from the iTunes store. I use primarily apps like Evernote that already store their data in the cloud so there is minimal non-replicated data on my iPhone and iPad. Music isn’t backed up, I will need iTunes Match for that some day. My photos aren’t backed up in iCloud, that is not something that is offered at all (and besides the photos on my device are a fraction of my photo content, I use smugmug and other paid services to back up all my photos). So what exactly is in these device backups that iCloud stores? and why is this substantially better than backups stored on my Mac — when will I ever use these backups? In sum — I’ve been explicit about choosing apps and configuring apps so that all my valuable data and state info is replicated and in the cloud, so that I don’t care if I lose a device (and can use multiple devices). So why should I care about device backups?

* The other files in my iCloud storage are docs. I have Pages and Keynote docs in iCloud from my iPad. If I was purely a Mac person, and didn’t collaborate at all with people in my office and business partners who use Office, then maybe I could just use Pages/Keynote on the Mac, and the iCloud doc storage might seem pretty simple. But I use a PC sometimes to edit my docs. And so I use Office so that I can work on my Mac or PC. And so that I can, with no fidelity loss, work with my colleagues on docs they have created in Office. I guess I could still move these docs in and out of iCloud storage, but if I am going to go to the trouble of moving docs around, why don’t I just move them into box.net or dropbox? They both have great iPad and iPhone interfaces, they work with Pages/Keynote on the iPad, I get 50G free on box.net, they both offer sharing options, I can create folders in them to organize my docs and control my sharing (Seriously, iCloud, no folders??), they let me store any kind of doc, they have great Mac/PC clients so that I can sync my collection with local folders easily, etc etc. If iCloud didn’t have the Apple brand, we would all be laughing at it.

* iCloud claims to store your music but practically doesn’t. I have 16,000 songs, 88G of music, in my iTunes library (and flac versions of all this but not in iTunes). 99% of it is from ripped CDs or purchased in mp3 format outside of iTunes. None of which iCloud handles, I have to wait for iTunes Match.

* iCloud stores your photostream but “I’ve already talked about why this isn’t very useful to me”:http://theludwigs.com/2011/10/icloud-photostream-and-dslrs-dont-seem-to-be-a-great-fit/.

* I don’t care about mail/calendar/contact backup as all mine is already stored on my Exchange server or Gmail server.

So iCloud storage is substantially worse than leading competitive alternatives for document storage; its only unique benefit is device backup, which I can’t figure out why I’d use; and it’s other features don’t really solve any problems. I am sure Apple will improve iCloud over time but as a storage solution it is underwhelming. Am I missing something? Does anyone find iCloud storage to be hugely helpful?

Thinking about gameday cell network performance

When I sit in Ohio Stadium for a football game, my fancy smartphone is a useless piece of metal and plastic. Some developers have tried to come up with apps to improve the gameday experience, but these apps miss the point. With 105,000 fans in the stadium, another huge set of ticketless fans milling around outside, all the stadium staff as well as security and service staff outside the stadium — there are probably 200,000 network devices in 30-40 acres all trying to jam onto the system, and all failing. The cell network simply can’t handle the load.

Our cell networks are wonderful things, but in the build out of our networks, the notion of broadcast has been left behind. 98% of the fans want the same exact data — top 25 scores, breaking football news, in-game replays, radio game feed. And yet the cell network and data apps feed this data to each user via dedicated single-user transactions. Cell broadcast exists in the standards but is not really in use in networks or handsets. Qualcomm tried to push Mediaflo for this use but got very little uptake and eventually shut down the service.

It’s unfortunate that the idea of broadcast has been left behind. It would be hugely useful in these kinds of crowded venues. I wonder if Qualcomm might not have succeeded had they just focused on NFL and NCAA football fans — people who spend stupid amounts of money on tickets and related gameday expenses, and who would probably spend money on dedicated gameday data services. It is not an easy service to provide tho. It requires spectrum, devices using that spectrum, and local content assemblage and editorial. There may be too many moving parts. It might be easier just to truck in lots of picocells to events and say screw it, dynamically expand the cell network as needed.

Lava is an awesome product name, I want one now.

Seriously, who would not want a “Lava heater”:http://www.coolhunting.com/design/lava-heaters.php? I am ready to order one today.

Contrast with the “Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch”, Samsung’s latest phone. How stupid a name is this? Do they seriously think this will have lasting impact in the market? What will they call an upgraded version some day? Will they increment the S or the II or the Epic or the 4G or will they just abandon this?

I’m no product naming expert, I used to excuse myself from all naming discussions while at Microsoft since it always felt like a discussion of how many angels on the head of a pin. Ultimately good products can overcome bad names, and bad products aren’t helped by clever names. But I admire cleanliness and simplicity in names, and the Lava name is simple, evocative, and to the point. The Samsung name is ridiculous.

UPDATE: a smart guy informs me that the Samsung name of the phone is the Galaxy S II. A little long but not egregious. It is Sprint that has slapped on the “Epic 4G Touch” modifier and Sprint deserves the blame. Pro tip: if you include “epic” in the name, pretty much guarantees the offering is not epic.

Ifttt.com and platform reminiscing

I’m playing around with ifttt.com and it is intriguing. I remember an earlier effort, yubnub, that I always found compelling. A general script interface to all my Internet data and services so that I can do interesting things across sites seems good.

I remember the evolution of Lotus Notes. A super general collab platform that let you store anything, write nice scripts and forms on top of it. The generalness of the platform was appealing and a certain set of early adopters went for it. But there were many more customers who didn’t want to create their own collaboration apps, but needed some pre-built apps. And so then Lotus made the “nifty fifty” most popular apps available — email, calendaring, candidate tracking, simple CRM, etc etc etc. And that was good, and more customers bought it. But ultimately Notes got washed out of the market by Microsoft Exchange, for many many reasons. But one simple view is that, while Exchange was a collab platform too (although terrible to code against), Exchange really focused on the high volume apps of mail and scheduling and just made those apps work. And that is all most people really needed.

Competitively the ifttt.com guys need to be very cognizant of cherry picking. While it is great they have hundreds or thousands of canned scripts, I don’t need hundreds, I only need a couple. And that is probably true for most users. And if the couple that people need a common across large groups of users, then some competitor can sweep in and just do those couple scenarios really really well and ifttt.com will remain a niche tool. I’d bet that they will have to build a lot more code on top of their platform to make sure that the top scenarios are really slick and easy to use, to avoid losing users to alternatives.

For instance I can already pretty easily use a wordpress plugin to MIRV content over to twitter and then to facebook. Will I flip over to ifttt.com for this or will I keep using the solution that someone has polished and made fit into wordpress? I suspect I’ll use the one that fits really well in wordpress. Now if the ifttt.com guys wrote the code to provide an ifttt.com plugin for wordpress, that would be interesting…

Apple is the new Honda

Nice writeup of “Apple’s manufacturing/supply advantage vs the PC OEMs”:http://daringfireball.net/2011/09/new_apple_advantage. Reminds me very much of the way Honda and Toyota crushed the American car manufacturers in the 70’s and 80’s — GM in particular had overly complex product lines, cars with a gajillion options. Honda came in with a simple model, no options, and great great quality, and just crushed GM in core markets. Product line complexity comes at a huge cost, Apple is playing this hand well.

New Sony Reader, same old busted strategy

“Sony has a new e-reader out”:http://techcrunch.com/2011/08/31/sonys-latest-kindle-killer-is-worlds-lightest-ereader/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29 and it seems to be very nice hardware, I’d love to buy one. Let me check out their reader store and see what their book inventory looks like these days:

Oh. And this kind of sums up Sony’s strategy. Nicely designed premium hardware, but off in their own software and service planet, which is not well executed. I’ve tried to give Sony the benefit of the doubt — I owned the “first Sony Reader back in 2007″:http://theludwigs.com/2007/01/im-a-sony-reader-convert/ — but they have failed to act on the big picture here. A big part of the Kindle’s awesomeness is the great store backend, the seamless download experience with the store, and the availability of Kindle software on every device on the planet so that I can read my purchases on my PC, my Mac, my phone, my Kindle, my iPad, on the web, pretty much anywhere. Sony totally whiffs on this total experience. It is kind of sad because I would love to see a first rate competitor to the Kindle, and Sony has some great assets to bring to bear — retail stores, solid hardware design skills.

In the long run, Amazon wants to sell digital goods, Sony wants to make great devices — I have to wonder why Sony doesn’t abase themselves, drop their own store, let Amazon run the backend for the Sony device, and make the Reader the best Kindle-compatible device in the world. Any other strategy just seems pointless.