Thursday, August 30, 2012

Republicans, Music and Burning Man

Is it just me, or does it seem like an odd coincidence that the Republican convention will end right before Burning Man? How many of the convention-goers are headed from Tampa to the playa? I actually found this video clip from the Republican convention, but I think that the source is mislabeled.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Apple v Samsung - The Verdict: Copycats and Knock-offs

So the verdict in San Jose is in and Samsung was found to be willfully infringing on Apple's patents. For detailed coverage, All Things D has a great Apple v Samsung summary page of the trial and links to several jury-member interviews. For an in-depth explanation and analysis of the patents and the legal proceedings, I think that Foss Patents is unparalleled.

Reactions to the Verdict
As you might expect with any contested issue, you can get find different voices. Marketplace found people in Korea who simply expected a home field advantage verdict -- Apple wins because they are local and they employ lots of people here. All Things D had a quote from a guy from Microsoft talking about how it was a win for Windows Phone. Kara Swisher captured a rather amusing interpretation of Google's response.

Samsung tries to spin this as, "a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer" and a case about giving "one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners," this reality is far from that. One look at the details of the case and the patents involved will lead most people to the same conclusion. But like much of modern politics and media engagement, Samsung seems to believe that if it can win the PR battle, that the facts will rewrite themselves.

If you read through the jury interviews, you'll find that the jury really wanted to find examples of prior art. Apparently, it made the first day of deliberation a rather heated one. But, in the end, they found that there was overwhelming evidence.

Perhaps the most interesting analysis of the verdict that I came across was from Farhad Manjoo on PandoDaily. Copying Works: How Samsung’s Decision to Mimic Apple Paid Off in Spades is a thoughtful analysis of how Samsung's decision to copy Apple was a successful business strategy.

His post is a great read -- he tells the story well -- but it's also rather amusing to read the comments. It's eerily reminiscent of the old Mac v PC back and forth. Perhaps the real lesson here is that, for all of those Apple evangelists, there are an equal number of anti-Apple wackos, the Tea Party nuts of the technology world. For them, the idea that Apple wins and that people copied Apple designs is kind of like the whole black president thing -- a travesty. Or a conspiracy.
Show me the prototype. Are you going to tell me that your 'computer' doesn't resemble the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The other thing which I think that Farhad really captures with his post is that, while the penalty for violating Apple's patents may seem steep in a consumer sense of scale, when you compare that to the business that Samsung has been able to build, the actual amount is peanuts. It's certainly not a disincentive. Samsung will be fine. They will move forward with new phones that don't violate the letter of Apple's patents, but they will remain competitors. First they mimic, then they evolve.

Tales from the Copycat Hall of Fame
In the technology industry, there have always been copycats. Remember when Huawei was trying to compete in the telecom space and their new switch product bore a remarkable resemblance to a Cisco switch -- right down to duplicate bugs and the Cisco name in the Huawei product manual? Sure a settlement was reached. It goes without saying that within their territory, governments can dictate the terms that businesses operate under -- sometimes those terms can be nationalistic -- but that's not really the point here.

The real point is that, nearly a decade later, both companies continue to sell products. Many customers, partners and/or whatever-else continue to do business with them. They did not get a Scarlet "C" to wear on their business cards. There may have been a period of 'lost face', but that faded. Whatever traditional business rules that they may have violated, their violations weren't so heinous that other businesses refuse to do business with them.

Of course, if you're a start-up, remember... don't try this at home. The penalties for robbing a bank like Bonnie and Clyde are far more serious than the penalties for stealing millions and causing a complete financial system collapse. Do that, and you're probably 'too big to fail".

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apple v Samsung: Internet Time meets Kickin it Old School

One of the realities of the world in Internet time is that copies are generated in a fraction of a second following the introduction of the original. Take location-based check-in as an example. Following the smart phone and location awareness, applications like Loopt explored the idea of knowing where all of your friends were. While many of us found this creepy, somebody thought that a better way might be one in which you voluntarily let your friends know where you were -- and check-in was born. There was Foursquare and a bunch of others that are gone now, then when Facebook and Yelp saw the interest those companies got, they added the feature to their software. Eventually, it got to the point where it wasn't a question of whether or not you were checking in, but more about what platform. And then we all got tired and it went away.

And through it all, we might have had conversations about whether Facebook or Yelp were copying Foursquare, but there was no patented stake in the ground that said, "this company came up with the concept of check-in, and everyone else is copying their stuff." Location-based check-in wasn't reallty even possible until we all started carrying geo-aware smart phones.

This type of stylistic feature copying is rampant on the web. It's common in art, music and literature. You might say that his art is like Dali, my writing is like Carlos Castaneda, that Justin Bieber sings like Melissa Ethridge, or that that snare drum sounds just like it was recorded in the eighties.

Along those same lines, one of the common copy discussions in the valley surrounds Zynga and how they rose up building games that were similar to games that other companies had produced. Take Words With Friends as an example. It's basically online Scrabble without the trademark. And Words With Friends isn't the only Scrabble-like game you can find on the iTunes App Store. There are dozens of similar games, if not more. As a game framework, Scrabble is over fifty years old. First person shooter and resource-based simulators are younger, but they are also more of a framework than a game. For many of these games, re-skinning the game is the game. Now, instead of your shooting character being a soldier, he is a bear or a squirrel. His targets are nuts or plasma-generating space turtles. And his weapons are a coffee grinder and a flaming, greasy spatula. And so you have thousands of games and copies.

Apple v. Samsung and the Patented World of the OS
With their vendor partnership, Samsung and Apple have a unique relationship. In August 2010, Apple met with Samsung to warn the company of the patents that believed that they were infringing. This All Things D post provides a nice summary, but if you want to check out the presentation, here's the link.

What I found noteworthy about this presentation is, I believe, a bit under-represented in the coverage of the trial. Specifically, as you go through this presentation, you'll find patents for technology that go back to 1992. Many aspects of the iPhone OS actually go back to innovations that were first developed for the desktop OS. What's more, when you reflect back on the idea and remember the technology of the time, you can see how something that seems almost like a trivial addition in the desktop world can be transformational in the smart phone environment. Perhaps prescient. Visionary.

Take one example of the patents in the Apple presentation, rotating the display orientation of a captured image (p35 of the file). The patent was filed back in 1996. My expectation is that this was filed in conjunction with those monitors that you could rotate. It's a not-particularly noteworthy feature that was primarily useful in the world of desktop publishing and too small monitors. And yet, coupled with the iPhone, it makes the display seem natural. Obvious. But before the iPhone, mobile devices didn't change orientation. There was only one up on a phone. But it didn't need to change orientation because it had a physical keyboard that told a clear story of bottom and top -- rotating didn't make sense.

Looking through Apple's patent presentation, you can see how the iPhone is culmination of 35 years of computer and OS development. It's the union of all of those sophisticated, thoughtful features that made an Apple an Apple -- that Windows users might have said, "didn't matter". It is not just a phone or another consumer device, it's personal computing transformed into a consumer-accessible mobile platform. It's a computer that makes you forget you're running a phone software application and tricks you into believing you're using a phone. In that same way, many of Apple's patents aren't simply something innovative approaches to a phone -- they're really computing innovations.

The iPhone and the Shot that Started the Revolution
Remember back in the days before the iPhone? At that time, the battle for the consumer market centered around the television. The television was going to be the intersection between the web and consumer. It was TVs. It was set-top boxes. It was smart media players like Blu-Ray. Nobody expected the iPhone to be the device that changed everything. Until it did.

Most consumer electronics companies don't develop their own operating system (most might even be an understatement). In that same way, many of the sophisticated functional elements that run underneath the hood of the iPhone are simply beyond the scope of their capabilities.

Now, I'm not a patent attorney, nor am I involved in the Apple v Samsung trial. But for me, this presentation was a compelling reminder of the difference between the original idea and the copy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Politics and Brand: Paul Ryan and Rage Against the Machine

I came across this rather amusing story this morning on Crooks and Liars. What you have here is the rather strange story of how GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan says that one if his 'favorite' bands. The piece then goes on to quote Tom Morello, one of the guys from the band, writing in Rolling Stone. In short, the values and the message expressed by Rage Against the Machine is not well aligned with Ryan's message and GOP values. Here's a snippet.
Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn't understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn't understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.

Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.

I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of "F*ck the Police"? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!
Music and Identity
Music is something that we all have a strange relationship with. For many people, it's not something that they think about very deeply. Often people's tastes are shaped by the endless repetition of radio and television. How many men out there found themselves singing lyrics from "My Humps" -- I'll bet the demographic is quite a bit larger that you might guess. In that way, much of pop music isn't about message, it's about repetitive association with other activities, moments and places. All that being said, I'd bet that few of those same men in the "My Humps" demographic would claim it to be their favorite song.

Politics and branding is different. Things are done with intent, with purpose. Stated values contribute to positioning. Knowing that, we're left to wonder, why would Paul Ryan claim Rage Against the Machine to be one of his favorite bands? I mean, I don't follow them nor do I know much about their music, but I do know enough to know that their values don't appear to align with Ryan's. This isn't like Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen -- in New Jersey, that would be kind of like saying you don't like the national anthem.

Remember back in the eighties when heavy metal hair bands were all the rage. For whatever reason, the sound and the imagery appeals to the teenage spirit. Suddenly Christian parents found their kids listening to devil music and looking at imagery that scared them. Suddenly, Christian rock bands came into being (I think it was on the eighth day, but I don't recall any particular big bang). Now Christian kids could listen to music that sounded similar to the popular music of the time, but it was safe. Sort of. The reality was that you'd be hard pressed to remember a band name that really competed with Motley Crue, Metallica, or Iron Maiden. Embracing a Christian rock band meant embracing a odd-ball brand -- definitely not cool.

So there are lots of safe 'favorites' you can claim, but that don't help you out with your brand. Mitt Romney could claim Pat Boone as a favorite, but it wouldn't reinforce anything other than how white he is. In the same way, can we really imagine Romney driving down the road blasting NWA or Snoop Dog through the speakers?

So, for Ryan, we want something young. Something edgy. Something that makes a statement. That's in your face. Rage Against the Machine's music certainly fits that. Of course, there is that little problem with content, but how many traditional GOP constituents actually know Rage Against the Machine's music anyway?

For most of his constituents, they probably won't listen to it or question it. So whose to say they aren't 'Raging' against the metaphoric bad guys of the GOP? In that same way, "My Humps" could be a political ballad celebrating economic growth or perhaps a recipe for surviving austerity like a camel...

In that way, the positioning probably works well for Ryan, even if it's a disconnect from the core values of the music. But it's too bad that candidates don't have to eat their own dog food as the saying goes. Imagine if Tom Morello got to help them select the best Rage Against the Machine tunes to play during all of Ryan's campaign events.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Frank Zappa Albums are Available on iTunes

News Flash: Tons of Frank Zappa albums are available on iTunes now. I'm not sure when this went live, but I know that a few months ago I was looking for Zappa and couldn't find anything. I went around to all the CD shops looking for used, out-of-print Zappa CDs and that turned out to be less fruitful that I expected. Then tonight I fired up iTunes and one of the promo images was Zappa!

Good stuff. Joe's Garage. Zappa in New York. Lot's more. Check it out!

Apple v Samsung: Design and the Culture of Make it Pretty

As crazy at it may seem, the Apple v Samsung trial has been some really enjoyable reading for me. In looking through some of the documents that have been published from the case, you can find some great stuff on what might be called 'the philosophy of product development'.

Here's another great post with documents from inside the walls of Samsung. All Things D has a nice summary article of the testimony of Galaxy icon designer Jeeyuen Wang. They also have this link to an internal presentation of their icon design strategy from 2011.

Basically, what you'll find in this presentation is that Samsung's design team developed a schema to establish coherence and elegant consistency to the icons that they used on their Galaxy products. If you read through this presentation, you'll find a design-centric presentation. Contrast that with the presentation I talked about in my previous post.

Clearly, what you have in the group designing their icon structure are people that understand design. At the same time, this wasn't something that ran through the entire product development process. Instead, the company appears to have gotten to a point where they through the software over the wall and said, "make it pretty." That's not an uncommon practice -- as anyone who has had to deal with design knows all to well -- but it points to the underlying differences between Apple's product and the copies.

"Make it Pretty" means that appearance is an afterthought. It's not integral to the why. Because they don't understand the subtle relationship between the look and the why.

So how many people do you think read the Steve Jobs book and decided to 'be more like Steve' -- but still adhere to the 'Make It Pretty' school of thought? At what point in their product development cycle do you think most people start to incorporate look and feel into the functionality? Sadly, I'll bet it's larger than you'd expect.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Not All Clouds Are Equal - Host Analytics and Browser Limitations

Recently I ran into Host Analytics, a 'web-based' SaaS application that makes the claim, "Cloud delivery: a business model aligned to your success" on their home page. What they don't tell you is that the application only works on a PC using Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

To say that I was surprised is a bit of an understatement. It's probably been nearly ten years since I've run into a web-based application that only worked on the PC, and most of those were legacy hold-overs from years before that. But to come across a modern web based application that seems to ignore Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and everything that Apple has done in the past seven or eight years is absolutely mind-blowing.

Only on a PC using IE? Seriously? What year is this?

Even the Wikipedia page on cloud computing lists the following as a key characteristic:
Device and location independence enable users to access systems using a web browser regardless of their location or what device they are using (e.g., PC, mobile phone). As infrastructure is off-site (typically provided by a third-party) and accessed via the Internet, users can connect from anywhere.
While I don't know of other specific examples, I'm sure that Host Analytics isn't the first company to festively decorate their marketing with cloud positioning. And if you found yourself in a political debate with a company spokesman, you would have to concede that technically they do deliver their service in the cloud. But frankly, if I were planning the future of my IT infrastructure, it wouldn't be on an IE-Windows island.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Apple and the Case of the Bumbling Design Thief

You know how classic mystery stories unfold with a series of strange events and then get near the end and the detective/hero character gets to a point where they say, "now let me tell you what really happened." As I've been following the Apple vs. Samsung trial, I recently came across one of those moments, a little bit of evidence that really frames the entire story in that flashback revelatory style. So, let me tell you what really happened...

You all know about this little company with a fruit-shaped logo. One of the things that the company had going for it was this design-centric ethos. They didn't just build stuff, they thought about what it should do, what it needed to do, and built systems to make those things work elegantly. This design ethos ran through everything they did, from the spacing of the type in their documentation to the ratio of round on their corners. Form, function and style were always closely integrated.

The iPhone was born from this process. It's operational elements incorporated functional design elements developed through years of process and work on the Mac platform. The metaphors for working within the virtual space were aided and cued by animation and graphics that synthesized an environment that was understandable, coherent and approachable as an interface. And in the same way that Apple forced developers to uphold standardized menu and interface structures in the Mac environment, they enforced the same level of control across the iPhone environment. When a new piece of software was allowed on the platform, it had to 'fit' into the platform.

Then Google went off cobbled together the Android OS. Perhaps it was spawned from some grand notion of open source, an idea that if a Terminator could have gone back in time and introduced Linux at the right moment in history, the Microsoft monopoly could have been thwarted. In some ways, iOS and Android are kind of like the Mac OS and Linux. Sure, there is a common Unix kernel, but Apple has invested a tremendous amount of time and effort building an interface for many of the underlying functional elements. And sometimes an integrated approach to a set of complicated functions is transformational.

And along came Android and a bunch of hardware manufacturers that saw it as an easy, ready-made platform for copying the iPhone. After all, from a technical perspective, it provided most of the same functionality, right? And it wasn't like most of these device hardware manufacturers had a lot invested in the software development side of the business. In the world of feature phones, a feature simply needed enough software to support its defined functionality. If it did, it did; it didn't have to be graceful or elegant.

Of course, the iPhone isn't just a phone. It's engineered to be more like a small computer that solves the phone problem in a way that meets Apple's standards. By that, I mean that the hardware is a platform, but what really makes the device is the software, what it does, and how it does it. In so many ways, this was at the heart of the magic underlying the device.

And so, when they attempt to echo this revolutionary product, our copying culprits simply assumed that they could slap some matching layers of functionality on the their devices and expect that it would work similarly -- or perhaps meet the standard of "good enough". Good enough works in a world that sells on feature sets and one louder. Good enough says that six mega-pixels equals six mega-pixels.

It's the bumbling assumption that a feature equals a feature, and that customers can't tell quality.

And so, entered into evidence at the Apple vs. Samsung trial is this wonderful piece of evidence showing how of Samsung -- after pumping out a weak, good enough version one of their product -- went through feature by feature trying to make their device work more like an iPhone. Here's a link to a post about the presentation on All Things D. And, if you find it interesting, here's a link to the presentation pdf file referenced in the post.

As I flipped through the pages of the presentation, what quickly became clear to me wasn't just how they were attempting to copy the iPhone -- it was how clearly it showed that they didn't understand the design. The presentation feature over 130 pages of examples. Each shows a what. None show an understanding of the underlying why. In short, they don't get it.

What your looking at here is like someone sitting inside the Louvre, making a crayon copy of the Mona Lisa and trying to sell that to you as though it were the original. And when 'customers' are not satisfied, they focus on which trying to make better and better reproductions, all the while missing the bigger picture.

If you remember some of those early smart-phone surveys, many Android users would respond with, "I want an iPhone as my next phone." What this presentation shows is that as much as they may have wanted to sell a product that was competitive to the iPhone. they really didn't know how to make a truly competitive product. Except by copying them. The 'openness' of Android's open source was too open. It didn't include enough design principles to navigate some of the structure and complex functionality that Apple had created with the iPhone.

Never underestimate the importance of design. This document provides about 130 case-studies on what that means.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How NBC Cancelled the Olympics

I haven't watched any of the Olympics this year. None. The only events that I know about are stories that have crossed my news ticker or been discussed on the radio. NBC has made the Olympics unwatchable for me.

Aspects of this story are not new and I know that I'm not the only one complaining about their coverage. Delayed broadcasts, edited coverage, an exclusive focus on US athletes, and the insufferable profile pieces that seem to get more airtime than the actual event -- it all sucks.

This is why we get up for the early morning live broadcast of the Tour -- the prime time broadcast is inane.

In previous years, they used some of their other network channels to provide coverage for many of the events that aren't covered in their prime time pile of crap. This used to be the watchable coverage of the Olympics. This year, a scan of all of those channels came up empty. Weekend off hour broadcasts on MSNBC still featured prison stories, NBC's other sports channel was showing an old auto-racing program, and the USA network ran it's usual programs.

Theoretically, they've upped their coverage on the Internet, "engaging" users on Twitter and Facebook. Haven't seen it. Haven't heard anybody talking about it. If it was good, I guarantee that friends and colleagues would be talking about it.

I did hear a spot on the radio where they were talking about the complaints. The mentioned how NBC continues to follow a content structure that dates back to the 1960s. They talked about the complaints from users on Twitter and Facebook, even questioned whether NBC was getting these complaints because they 'courted' new media users. The un-broadcast answer: "No, the coverage has always sucked. Now, more people have the ability to publish their feelings about it." But that was edited out to make the story more dramatic.

So far, the best coverage of the Olympics that I've seen this year was from NBC Delayed. I came across a post from here while browsing through Twitter updates of the Apple-Samsung trial. Hilarious.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tour de France Hangover

Every year about this time, I find myself caught up in my Tour de France hangover. Part of it comes from getting up early and turning on the television to watch the live broadcast of the day's stage. I don't usually turn on the television in the morning, so it's a very different routine for me. But somehow, after the Tour ends, I find myself walking by the television with my finger twitching, anxious to power the TV up. So, if you're like me, consider this a post-Tour recovery step.

Positive Take-aways
It was a nice race for the Brits. It's always nice to see one of those 'first time for a fill-in-the-blank to win this' events. It makes for a nice meta-story. And yet, as the world has grown flat, I think it's harder for us to think of national boundaries as a barrier. National identity is not the same kind of barrier as the first Jamaican bobsled team where the entire team grew up with no experience of snow. And now we're headed into the Olympics, where national identity defines teams and we can expect to hear a lot of 'heartwarming' stories of background struggles against the odds. And yet, while there are differences between countries in terms of sports funding and support, do we really believe that national identity might prevent someone from winning?

It was also interesting to see Strava buy commercial time. Several of the clips featured roads or trails that seemed familiar -- very much like they were grabbing a scene from some place that I've ridden. That aspect often drew me in. At the same time, the payoff fell flat for me. If I didn't already know what Strava was, I don't think I would have gotten anything more out of the commercials. When I've talked to several of my cycling friends about it, they don't anything about Strava. It makes me think that their commercials need a bit more substance tucked in under that glossy visual imagery.

By the end of the Tour, it's easy to forget about the drama from the early weeks of the event, but it was rather frustrating to see the USADA / WADA folks using the season to get press for their endless rehash of the classic "let's take down Lance Armstrong for doping" tune. Seriously? Don't get me wrong, I understand that three things that will get average Americans to follow bicycling racing on television are:
  1. An American in the story
  2. Crashes
  3. Doping scandals
When he was riding, Lance Armstrong helped sell cycling. In that same way, with the absence of a big American star to draw viewers, the media loves to look for any Lance story to draw eyes. So in the early part of the tour, we get coverage of the "who has testified against Lance" rumors flying around. Anything to help build eyeballs.

Now, I'm not going to revisit all of the back and forth on Lance Armstrong. And while there are some great jokes about how far down the results they would have to go in order to find "an untainted winner",  if we extrapolate to assume that a broad part of the field is "tainted" in some way, what does it mean to compete and outperform those "tainted" peers?

And what's really at stake here? In many ways, professional cycling is a show. The pro Peloton is a rolling extravaganza, a gypsy circus promoting cycling and sponsored products. In the same way that the peleton used to let local riders pedal ahead to be the first to arrive in their home town or the way that all racing among the leaders was stopped after the recent nail event,  the community operates and competes under a set of established codes and traditions. It has it's own definition of sanctioned and unsanctioned behavior.

WADA and the USADA insert themselves into this environment as some arbiter of equality as though they ensure a fair race that enables racer to have an equal chance of winning. Of course, this flies in the face of the Stars and Watercarriers tradition. Who can forget that statement to Greg Lemond when he thought he had the opportunity to win in 1985, "you ride for Hinault."

In that way, when you see some new rider in the pro peloton suddenly appear out of nowhere to become a surprise strong contender, it's usually one of those things that makes you wonder. Improved testing has helped proved some level of filter against that type of behavior. And when you see a 'surprise contender' that appears arrogant or behaves contrary to the traditions of cycling, you almost find yourself rooting for the doping controls.

All that being said, the USADA / WADA pursuit of Lance Armstrong has just gone too far. Instead of being some sort of pursuit of truth and honesty in sport, it's become a vindictive witch hunt for that guy who you think might have stolen the cookie from your lunch in second grade. Regardless of the specifics of any legal code, as a society we have a statute of limitations. In that way, this thing should have been over a long time ago. Lance Armstrong's racing career is not active. We don't have the opportunity to shape behavior, save lives, or right some great injustice. In the grand scheme of things, a win here is not a win.

Today, Lance Armstrong's career represents a foundational cornerstone in the battle against cancer. For many people, the guy is a hero. And a hero not because of the destination, but because of the journey. USADA pursuing a win in this case is kind of like trying to win a court judgement to tell small children that there is no Santa Claus. Win or lose, it's kind of a dick move.