Friday Four

Friday, April 20, 2012

1. I was amused when I read John C. Dvorak's rant about Google's Larry Page, the latest CEO to proclaim that his company is going to "act like a startup". I also found intriguing the following idea:

... What needs to be done is for the company to get people enthused about the outstanding ancillary products. And by this, I do not mean the Google+ Facebook competitor.

I'm referring to its navigation system, for starters. The Google turn-by-turn navigation system combined with its street-level photos has no peer. If this was sold as a stand-alone product to compete with Tom-Tom, Garmin and Magellan it would probably ruin those companies overnight.

Why someone doesn't take this software and put it on a 7-inch tablet? It should be sold as a navigation system, because Google is promoting it poorly. [link dropped]
Not that I'm a big user of navigation systems, but I'd certainly appreciate being able to do more than just mute the ones that are currently out there to make them less annoying to use.

2. Could Microsoft have created the iPhone first? According to a recent story about its former CTO, it seems so.
In 1991, [Nathan] Myhrvold predicted the emergence of the iPhone down to the smallest detail, describing a "digital wallet" that would consolidate all personal communication -- telephone, schedule manager, notepad, contacts, and a library of music and books, all in one. It would record and archive everything you asked it to, he surmised. "The cost will not be very high," he wrote. "It is pretty easy to imagine a $400 to $1,000 retail price." Microsoft, however, was too cost conscious and risk averse to execute Myhrvold's vision. "Hey, it was better than predicting the wrong thing," Myhrvold says now.
The article at the link mentions that Myrhvold is the author or "a bestselling six-volume cookbook". I hadn't heard of that, so I looked it up.

3. Parenthood has introduced me to a small handful of sporting and repetitive stress injuries I'd never experienced: a sprained wrist, stiffness in the neck, and a shin splint, so far, at various points. The last of these caused me to become intrigued by a piece about a way to resolve shin splints I found at Lifehacker.

I got my shin splints to resolve in a few weeks by remembering not to bend my ankle when I walked, but I might try this if I get them again, since it claims to resolve them within a week. That said, the author wisely cautions:
The usual disclaimer applies: Everyone's body is different, and if you feel like you're injuring yourself, stop and see a doctor or physical therapist. You may have something else that could require calf stretching, calf raises, shin stretching, or standing on tennis balls to do mid-foot stretching. Some people are told to walk around on their heels, but it seems that this would cause impact and stress on the knees. Really, I've never seen the toe raising exercise fail when performed properly, daily.
I'll keep that in mind, and ask now whether anyone here has tried this. I am particularly interested in hearing from anyone for whom this did not work or made his shin splints worse.

4. Is buying a used car online about to get easier? It looks like it:
[Carsabi] scrapes listing and image data from Craigslist (and other sites, like eBay Motors), adding "approximately 17,971 new listings per day." That translates to about 1.5TB of crawled data every 24 hours. The site aims to do for used car sales what's been happening for years on AirBnB, Padmapper, and other sites that take online data and apply it to real-world, high-value objects and services. In just a few months of service, Carsabi seems poised to upend used car sales. (And, you can filter for only clean titles!)
We'll be in the market for a car later this year, so this comes as good news.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

“Microsoft, however, was too cost conscious and risk averse to execute Myhrvold's vision.”

It’s interesting to contemplate the factors which cause large organizations (empires or businesses) to fail.

Gus Van Horn said...

It is. In this case, I would appear that antitrust law might have contributed to the risk-aversion (by creating extra, unnatural risk).

"Windows innovation stagnated during the last decade, as Microsoft backed off the so-called middleware categories covered by the antitrust case and withheld integrating new technologies into the operating system that should have kept the platform vital and created more opportunities for third-party developers."

Of course, the antitrust case was filed in 1998, some time after Myrhvold's idea, so this may not have factored into this particular case...

In addition, Microsoft's own business model might have demanded a different (and less effective?) strategy than the one Apple has used with such success, as evidenced by its difficulty playing catch-up.

"... Microsoft can't subsidize hardware manufacturers to make Windows Phone products because Microsoft's whole business is selling operating systems to hardware makers. Here it faces the essentially insurmountable problem that Android is available for free..."

Steve D said...

"Of course, the antitrust case was filed in 1998, some time after Myrhvold's idea, so this may not have factored into this particular case..."

Of course the threat of antitrust might still have been a factor. It’s hard to tell for sure. This case is of personal interest to me since I can see the same thing happening at my company.

Gus Van Horn said...

Sorry to hear that.

Of course, plain old bad management might have taken hold. You may also find this interesting, although it happened well after the anti-trust suit, so cause and effect may be problematic. Here is a taste:

"Dig a bit deeper and you’ll realise that Microsoft meetings are a way to diffuse and evade responsibility for decisions. Yes – let’s spend weeks on weeks “reviewing with stakeholders.” It’s so much safer that taking swift decisions ourselves. The company places no trust on the individual to make the right decision on their own."

Steve D said...

I am a little skeptical of his comments, especially given that he was fired; although I will admit they strike a cord. I could perhaps believe a more toned down version of the situation. It seems hard to believe that things are really that bad at Microsoft? In my experience the usual reactions to innovative ideas or good suggestions are kind words, a pat on the back and then a gentle push out the office door (not flagging someone as antagonistic or firing them; rather than getting condescension you are more likely to receive a blank stare and a change of subject). Possibly, his tone or manner exacerbated his situation? Perchance, I’m not aggressive enough?

“Thank you for your suggestion. We’ll take it up at the next inter-functional sub team exploratory meeting. Keep up the good work.” Only later, do you realize, no such meeting exists or if it does it occurs only once a year.

If what he is saying does bare some resemblance to the truth, then I guess I need to stop complaining. It seems that where I work, we are far earlier in that downward spiral of apathy than his company.

One of the most frustrating things I find is when rhetoric and reality do not match. For example management may preach that they encourage publication, but then it takes me a year to get my manuscript approved. Or when upper management proclaims that they reward innovation, but then concentrate on very narrow process improvements (easily measurable) and ignore game changing scientific work. There seems to be a lot of focus on ‘making the numbers’ or ‘developing assays’ and little thought into the scientific value or validity of the output. So the assays run efficiently and superbly but tell us nothing useful. Oh, and making very beautiful PowerPoint slides. We do that very well, although not as well as General Motors. Apparently their slides were so impressive; it won them a bail out. And all this is from very smart people.

The historical cycle is a real concept and its causes are debatable; great companies, nations and empires rise and fall as they have all throughout all of history; almost as if it is inevitable. But I can’t believe that. After all these are groups of Homo sapiens (not insects) we are speaking about. They control their own destiny. Still the trap seems very difficult to avoid and may have a basis deep in human psychology.

Gus Van Horn said...

While that author's getting fired does raise the issue of his having an ax to grind, I think there is a mixture of good and bad points here. (I think the guy also might be laboring under some common misconceptions about management.) That said, he could still be right that there is lots of unnecessary managerial overhead at his former company.