Monday, December 6, 2010

An Interview with David Hersh

In early August, I promised an interview with David Hersh "in a few weeks." It took me a while to prepare myself, but finally I was able to reach out to him. David, who co-founded the formerly (more below) social networking site Multiply, was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer a few questions.

LS: At the end of my August 2 blog entry I briefly introduced Multiply, but I'm sure I didn't do it justice. Can you elaborate on what Multiply does, and what your role is within the company?

DH: Multiply is a social networking site that has recently evolved into a social shopping site. The service was built to allow people to share photos, videos and blogs with friends and family on fully customizable personal web sites. We discovered that those tools as well as the social communication tools that underlie the media sharing also work great for someone looking to set up an online storefront and build an e-commerce business with little to no out-of-pocket expenses.

Since the e-commerce activity got layered on top of what was already an established social network, where people were already engaged with their network of friends and family, the result is one of the purest examples of social shopping on the web today. Growing this ecosystem, which already has over 80,000 merchants, is now the focus of our business.

According to my title, I'm the Chief Product Officer. Since we're such a small company, this entails everything from determining product strategy down to day-to-day project management. I also do a lot of business development work and manage most of our partner relationships.

LS: When we first met long before that, you had quoted some statistics about the company. The most relevant (to most people) is the number of subscribers, which was 14mm at that time. Has it grown materially since then?

DH: We're now somewhere north of 16mm registered users. At the moment, transactions in our Marketplace don't actually go through Multiply. Because they happen directly between the buyer and the seller, someone shopping on Multiply doesn't actually have to register to go through with their purchase. As a result, our monthly "uniques" (Users who are not registered. -Larry), which is in excess of 20mm, is greater than our registered user base.

LS: Would you attribute this to something that Multiply is doing specifically or just the overall sector growth due to the huge media attention that sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, and their predecessors have received?

DH: Our growth is primarily being driven by the e-commerce activity these days. We represent a pretty unique offering in the space and our "freemium" model is especially appealing in the emerging markets.

For no cost, someone can set up a storefront, customize it to look like a real web site (as opposed to a social networking profile), grow the business by leveraging Multiply's inherent social communications tools, and start earning money very quickly. There are plenty of site-in-a-box services out there, but they don't bring the audience or the social tools to the table. There are also plenty of e-commerce sites out there where you can set up shop, like eBay, but economics aren't as compelling and the social tools are extremely lacking.

Multiply has a completely self-contained ecosystem, with the buyers, the sellers and the products all living within our walls. Add in the social communication tools, which allow the sellers to grow their businesses without lots of up front marketing expenditures, and you've got a pretty compelling and unique offering.

LS: It doesn't hurt either that, relative to Facebook, Multiply is somewhat anonymous.  This gives you some advantage in that you are able to observe Facebook and make adjustments to Multiply to reflect their successes and failures. Have you taken advantage of this?

DH: Very rarely actually, especially as our focus shifts to e-commerce. Even before that though, as odd as it may sound, Facebook was largely following our lead. I won't venture to guess how much of it was tied to watching us explicitly, but there was no doubt that they were following our product trends. Things like the news feed, integrated media sharing and granular privacy controls were all "firsts" that can be attributed to Multiply. Facebook was consistently following in our footsteps, but that seemed to change with Zuckerberg's obsession with Twitter.

LS: Do you think that Facebook's shift as a result of this obsession was successful?

DH: I personally think that direction was a mistake for them. Rather than continuing down the path of becoming a place to share meaningful content with "real" friends, the focus on status updates flowing through the news feed has, in my opinion, shifted the focus squarely from utility to entertainment. The Facebook news feed is a fire hose pumping out bite-sized bits of pseudo news from hundreds and sometimes thousands of pseudo friends. It's designed to dip your toe into it whenever you're bored, and the assumption is that you're not going to see everything.

This is great for passive entertainment, but it isn't so great for meaningful sharing. Are you going to put the time and effort into a long entry about your recent vacation or update your friends and family with what's going on in your life if you don't even know whether the few "real" friends in your list of hundreds of Facebook friends will actually see it? You might as well just do a quick status update or mobile photo upload.

LS:  I agree, but you can't argue with Facebook's popularity either.

DH:  Of course not.  Clearly millions of people love that entertainment, but it's also something that people can tire of. I'm always going to want to see those pictures of my brother's vacation, but at some point I may not want to waste time knowing that the guy I sat next to in kindergarten just ate lunch at the Olive Garden in Times Square.

If I were Zuckerberg I would find a way to maintain the entertainment value of the service, while at the same time trying to put more emphasis back on sharing more meaningful content with a more meaningful set of people.

LS: Bringing it back to the business model, what does this mean in terms of impact?

DH: In terms of the business model, Facebook has so much scale that they can make hay out of the frustrating low CPMs (Cost Per Thousand, a term used to measure readership for the purposes of determining advertising rates by content publishers. -Larry) associated with advertising on social networking services. It's too hard for other services to bank on that model working out though, because you have to have a differentiated service that allows for diversified revenue streams.

Until recently, our focus on digital media, including the permanent backups of hi-resolution media and the photo-finishing services, was our primary differentiator, and it allowed for revenue streams more commonly associated with sites like Kodak Gallery and Shutterfly. More recently, it's not hard to understand why we've been so quick to embrace the e-commerce activity: the path to revenue with e-commerce is much more clearly defined than it is with social networking.

LS: Have you found that this movement to e-commerce applies uniformly across the globe?

DH: While we do have online sellers in at least a dozen countries, the bulk of the activity is happening in Southeast Asia. The Philippines and Indonesia are the two strongest countries, with Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia also having significant activity.

LS: This has been very enlightening.  Thank you David for your time.

DH: You're welcome.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Time for Thanks

Every year around this time, I take a few moments to think about the wonderful things in my life for which I am very thankful. This year the activity took on special significance because, 4 days ago, my mother suffered a cardiopulmonary attack (a heart attack coupled with respiratory failure) and has been in a coma since.

Not surprisingly, I immediately came home to be with my father who has been her spouse for 43 years and has been profoundly affected by this. What is surprising is that this isn't the first time she's been comatose. In fact, I jokingly say to anyone who will listen that my mother has cheated death so many times she probably owes him money or something. The last time, my mother developed a sudden case of bacterial meningitis and was unconscious for 11 days before waking up and, in her characteristic fashion, complaining that she didn't have her makeup and similar implements with her to avoid looking like a fashion nightmare.

The very wonderful Dr. Sam Leung, a close friend of mine who has a practice in Chinatown (and is not in any way providing medical care to my mother, who lives in South Carolina) once told me that, when you feel nothing is going right for you, you should stop and find (not "try to find") ten things that you can count as blessings in your life.

So here is my list of ten things:
  1. I am thankful for my mother, who has always shown me that it's not what you say but it's what you believe in your heart that counts. I haven't always practiced this, but anyone who knows her knows that she is the ultimate example to be followed in this regard.

  2. I am thankful for my father, who hasn't let this or the many other setbacks in life (whether Mom's medical maladies or other things) stop him from continuing to "get the job done," whatever that means at the time.

  3. I am thankful for my wife, who truly understands the importance of family. (Some would argue that she understands it better than I do.) While I was hesitating to try and figure out what I should do after receiving the news of my mother's condition, she gave me a swift kick in the ass and told me to pack up and go even though it meant that she would stay behind with our 2 year old daughter. (If my mother's condition deteriorated, though, rest assured that she would be on the first place to South Carolina with baby in tow.)

  4. I am thankful for my 10 year old daughter, Sara, who was looking forward to spending 4 days with my wife, her younger sister and I over the Thanksgiving holiday but has never questioned once the need for me to be here with my father. In fact, she has been extremely concerned over her grandmother's condition and has asked very pointed questions to try and understand the extent of the situation.

  5. I am thankful for the rest of my extended family and friends. It would be impossible to name them all here, but they know who they are. My father and I have been inundated at the house with phone calls from people around the world who are checking to see how I am holding up; how my father is; and obviously if there is any change in my mother's condition.

  6. I am thankful for my manager, Ed, who has reiterated on several occasions that it is good for me to be with my father given what has happened. Given the pressures that one has when they are in sales to meet their quota, it takes a lot for someone to say "that doesn't matter...go be with your family for as long as you need to be."

  7. I am thankful to have a job that provides a place to live; food to eat; and clothes to wear for my family. It is a job that allows me to work from home when possible due to the distance I am from my office. And I am surrounding by extremely capable people from whom I learn an immense amount on an almost daily basis.

  8. I am thankful to have musical talents that give me a means of expression that many others don't have. My two daughters have this as well: Sara plays the piano and flute quite well; and our 2 year old Piper will not walk anywhere in our house without a pair of drumsticks in her hand (full sized too!). She has a child's size drumset that she beats on constantly, and I am confident she will be quite good at it when she gets older.

  9. I am thankful that I am in good health and that my family is too, save for my mother's current condition. My father is 73 years old, and his mental faculties are as sharp as a razor's edge. If it weren't for him, my mother would have required additional help a decade ago.

  10. Most of all, I am thankful that God gave all of these things to me, and that I have never forgotten this.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Post-Mortem

I try to avoid religious diatribes. I recognize that religion is an intensely personal matter, and I can remember when people would canvas door-to-door, interrupting my family during dinnertime growing up.

I also try to avoid political discussions. In my opinion, people either take a "half interested" view of politics or are rabid fanatics of everything that goes on in Washington D.C., their states, and their locales. Politically induced rabies tends to induce blindness and a general lack of common sense in people too, which is the reason why I avoid it. (I'll leave my general loathing of politicians and the tendency of them in general to put personal interests above the good of the people; lobbying ['nuff said]; and related topics out of this discussion.)

Still, Tuesday saw the biggest swing in Congress since the 40's so it is my civic duty to comment: I'm glad it's over.

I realize that the Republicans felt the need to recapture Congress given the trouncing they experienced 2 years ago. And since they were neutered and unable to advance the agenda that they felt would best serve their constituents, this does have some degree of importance. And so I get the attack advertisements and general mudslinging since, in the modern day where Snooki's Trash Talking is considered "exciting TV," this is the only way to get people's attention.

Disclaimer: I'm not Republican or Democrat. When I registered to vote, I listed myself as "Conservative," which I suppose makes me closer to being a Republican than a Democrat but I am technically neither. I believe strongly in showing compassion to one's neighbor ("Love thy neighbor as thyself.") but also have a strong sense of fiscal self-responsibility that I firmly believe should apply to government as a whole.

Having stated my personal position and my understanding of the Republican Party's need to reclaim the majority, I will say that their behavior collectively over the past few years is despicable. It is one thing to wait for the other side to make mistakes that you can capitalize on during the next election cycle. But it is another thing entirely to sit back, criticize, aggressively block any Democratic action on the grounds that the Democrats are for it "so therefore we must be against it," and generally act like a 1st grader in the sandbox who is pissed at the schoolkid next to you because they started playing with the Tonka dumptruck that you were eyeing.

So I'm glad this is over. The country has suffered from Wall St. for sure, and I haven't been shy in lambasting the pigs in the Financial Services district (and that includes the shady mortgage dealers too) for bringing this country to the brink of ruin, but I expect better from a Congressional body that is supposedly elected "by the people and for the people."

Here's to the next 2 years, which will hopefully be better because Congress is able to focus on what they should be doing: representing the American People.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Perception is Reality

Edit: ironically, this article on the latest security debacle at Facebook was released today on the Wall Street Journal. You can't script this stuff. Really.

The subject for this blog entry is an oft-repeated mantra of mine. I'm not sure if I've discussed this here before, but I would argue that even if I have it is worth repeating. The inspiration for this subject is a recently reported "feature" of Facebook that any of your contacts that were kind enough to enter their phone numbers in their profile have that information visible to anyone in your network unless they were savvy enough to make that information visible to their friends only.

Of course, when one of my Facebook friends found out that the had access to their friends' phone numbers they panicked. "ZOMGWTF!!1!11!!uno" was essentially the response, and all of their friends chimed in with similar ones after they confirmed it. Even Yours Truly responded in kind and dutifully reposted this information to further spread the word that Facebook is Bad, mmkay? while continuing to spend 5 hours per day on the obviously terrible site.

It wasn't until a good friend of mine slapped me in the face with a healthy dose of reality - thanks Tom Bridgman! - that I realized I had fallen victim to the general distrust of a website that has been prominently displayed in the news over the past year or so for questionable information security practices. And yet when I stopped and thought about it, I realized that if I really cared about my phone number being shared then I probably wouldn't have entered it in the first place. Ergo, by doing so I created for myself the expectation that others would see it and, if needed, use it. Therefore, this really wasn't a risk after all.

What's worse is that after digging on the Internet for a few moments I realized that this wasn't something that Facebook decided to do recently. In fact, this feature had been around for several months I read and that reminded me: I had read of Facebook's intention to do this before they actually implemented it. It didn't bother me then - I ensured that my phone number wasn't in my profile - so why did it bother me now?

The answer: perception is reality. The perception that the public has of Mark Zuckerberg et al is that they are clueless idiots with respect to information security and that their chase of the almighty IPO have blinded them to the concept of "respecting your user community." Granted, they have done little to discourage this, but now they are deemed guilty before being proven innocent. In fact, I will admit to being on a witchhunt when it comes to Facebook because it does seem that the website was built to look and feel slick without necessarily thinking through all of the required security architecture at the same time. But that doesn't mean that there's fire where there's smoke in spite of what my perception is of them.

Still, perception is reality. If they are perceived to be the Keystone Cops then they are regardless of the truth. And sometimes it requires a slap in the face by someone named Tom to get one to realize this may not be reality.

In business, this tenet requires us as professionals to ensure that our actions are clearly defined by the intention of those actions. This may require close coordination with your team members and your direct manager, but in the end the extra effort will be worth it. Not only will you avoid any confusion incurred when people wonder what the motivation for one action or another was, but your coworkers will respect you for being an open communicator and a team player. And that is always a good thing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Get Your Head Out of the Cloud

Two weeks ago, I was at a large pharmaceutical client talking to a senior IT executive when the word "cloud" was mentioned in passing. He chuckled and responded that this was simply the nom du jour for something that has been in use for a number of years now. For example...

Client / Server. When Microsoft DNA became popular with redundant web, application and database servers this was, in essence, a cloud albeit one that was limited in its ability to scale since you couldn't rapidly add new machines to the mix as demand required it. (And DNA wasn't the first time this setup was used either - Microsoft simply made it sound fashionable.)

Application Service Provider (ASP). This was, in reality, a variant of Client / Server because essentially it was the exact same architecture run instead on another company's infrastructure. From a conceptual perspective, however, this was very similar to cloud computing as it's defined today: your application is deployed elsewhere allowing you to avoid having to invest in the infrastructure required to run it internally.

Service Oriented Architecture (SOA). "Do you want to be able to run your application where changes in the location of various subsystems won't affect its ability to execute? Then SOA is for you!" Of course, this wasn't the primary advantage of SOA but it was certainly mentioned as one of the primary advantages. This is similar in concept to a private cloud, in my opinion.

"But The Cloud is 'on demand computing'!" you exclaim. Do you really think that an application's architecture is going to change just because you run it internally, at an ASP, or on Amazon's EC2? Of course not. This is strictly a question of where the infrastructure resides and who is responsible for maintaining it.

Yet it's funny that, in spite of the fact that these architectural designs have been in play for a few decades now, the press would have you believe that "the cloud" is worthy of a Nobel Prize or something equivalent. When you read articles like this recent one on CIO.com where people like RedMonk's analyst Stephen O'Grady makes a statement like, "We are founded upon the idea that developers are the single most important constituency in technology," it sounds an awful lot like someone is trying to coerce the rest of the world into giving developers the respect that is probably due them (but never happens). Do I smell an attempt at World Domination by the geeks in the world?

Regardless of what the cloud really means, it is imperative that this one fact is never overlooked: the business has needs that need to be met. And while I love the concept ("something borrowed, something blue") and think that there are some very exciting cloud management solutions out there (AppLogic's 3Tera, for example) that probably wouldn't exist without first having the excitement around the concept of "the cloud," if I ever forget that "it's all about the business (duh!)" then I've lost all relevancy in the world of IT.

After all, it's the business that pays my paycheck and not the developers no matter how RedMonk or any analyst firm would want you to believe.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Nightmare

I'm sure this doesn't fall under the "quality blog entry" concept that I mentioned two entries ago, but I'm also not one to shy away from pointing out the good and the bad in customer service either.

Here's the Executive Summary for you, which I am sure will hook you into reading the rest: I lost a hard drive that had no backup; recovered it completely using freeware; fried my motherboard in the process of permanently installing the previously lost hard drive; replaced the motherboard and the CPU (just in case); and now have a working computer again 4 weeks later.

How all of this happened is something I can't explain. (Well, maybe I can. More on that later.)

Three years ago, I bought an external, 500G USB 2.0 Fantom drive from MicroNet. The reviews on NewEgg were positive overall; the price (at that time) was very good; and I was running out of disk space on my internal drive so I bought it. About a month before the really bad stuff occurred, the drive started exhibiting problems, though I was naive and simply thought it had spun down and simply needed to startup again. "Smart drive, saving itself like this. That'll increase the time before it fails." Yes, I really did think that.

August 24, 2010 - Black Tuesday - came and Microsoft released their bevy of hotfixes for the month. When I rebooted after applying the fixes, the computer didn't restart. It had "hard hung," so I needed to power down the computer completely. It rebooted okay, but then the drive wasn't being recognized by Windows.

Panic! I had no backup! None of my financial data was on the drive, but something far more valuable was: songs that my oldest daughter sang every Christmas season that I recorded, going back to when she was 3 years old.

I immediately went to the two expert sources that I know: TeamWarfare League and Cubase.net . The former is a website of gamers with over 600,000 registered members, and there is no group of people that is more in touch with technology and its snafus than a bunch of hardcore gamers. The latter is a website of professional (and semi-professional) music recording people who rely on computers to provide for them the ability to create the wonderful works of music that they do. Like gamers, they know technology very well because their very livelihood depends on it.

Various suggestions were made including software to try as well as one, little known trick, which I have used as far back as 1994: put the hard drive in the freezer for 1h and try again.

(For those of you who think that's absurb, the logic is this: stuck mechanical parts in the drive will contract in the freezer, giving you typically 20m or so of good operation before the heat generated by the use causes them to get stuck again. The cold temperatures themselves do not jeopardize the magnetic properties of the data. My standard disclaimer applies here, however: try this at your own risk and don't come after me with a lawyer if it doesn't work.)

After spending a few days researching disk structures and realizing that I had not kept up with technology since I wrote a disaster recovery solution for OS/2 in the mid-90's (ironically, my current employer acquired the company after I left), I finally reached out to Gibson Research, makers of the very highly recommended SpinRite data recovery software. I asked them for their honest opinion if they thought there was a chance that the software would help; told them I would buy if they honestly thought it would.

To their credit, they told me no. Anyone who is given a chance to make money would take the chance, I would have thought, so they get major kudos for their honesty. Unfortunately, they were wrong. But I digress.

The freezer trick didn't work. Using the built-in Windows low-level diskpart utility didn't work. Nothing seemed to work. Worse, MicroNet told me that since the drive was no longer under warranty that they would charge me to fix it. No warranty? No problem. I can break the seal on the case without worrying about the consequences since I know inside is a "regular" (read: internal) hard drive.

Sure enough, inside was a Western Digital EIDE drive that I was able to connect to my motherboard directly. Then I found, downloaded, and installed MiniTool Power Data Recovery, a freeware application that received good reviews. Using the Lost Partition Recovery function, I not only found all of my files but was able to save them to my main hard drive.

Disaster avoided, or so I thought.

That evening, I repartitioned the previously misbehaving drive; performed a full NTFS format on it; and ran some non-scientific tests to confirm that the drive itself was okay. I had erroneously suspected that the Windows hotfix installation "failure on reboot" caused my partition table to get wiped out, so I wanted to make the drive external again. I copied the files back to the drive (keeping the backup this time [wink]) and reinstalled it in its enclosure.

No dice. The circuitry in the enclosure seems to have been the culprit after all.

I won't deny that I'm disappointed that the failure occurred after only 3 years, especially since circuit boards have no moving parts. I wrote MicroNet and told them this, but (not surprisingly) I haven't heard back from them. After taking the hard drive out again, I threw away the enclosure and do not plan to buy from them again. I'm not about to throw away a perfectly good 500G Western Digital drive, however, so I installed the drive permanently in my computer case. While attempting to reinstall the drive after setting the jumper on the DVD drive so that it will work harmoniously with my "new" hard drive my computer died completely.

No video signal. No POST. No sound. Nothing.

Now I'm really panicking because although I know I can get my computer to work again and all of the files will be there, I do not want to be wrestling with the hardware manufacturers to get them to honor the warranties, etc. Now I go to the ultimate expert: my younger brother, Bill.

He walked me through some diagnostics and, at the end, we determined that it was either the video card; the motherboard; or the CPU. Since he lives 1,000 miles away, we couldn't narrow the focus any further, and he recommended I go to a computer repair shop and ask them to provide a final analysis.

The disadvantage of moving from NYC to the middle of the countryside is that there aren't a bevy of stores (relative to what you'd find 5 minutes from the Queens border on Long Island like we had before) to choose from when you need something. The only repair shop was Aurora Computer Urgent Care (who, lucky for them, do not have a website), so I called them on the phone and explained the situation and what I needed. "No problem," they said. "Bring it in."

Three days later, I call them to find out the status. This already left me feeling frustrated because, in my opinion, a repair shop should call the customer when the work is finished and not the other way around. They told me that they eliminated the graphics card as the source of the problem but they can't do any more because they do not build AMD-based computers and so they do not have a working motherboard and CPU to swap with mine.

Excuse me? Why wasn't I told this before? I grudgingly picked up my computer and paid $55 (plus tax) for something I could have done myself (read: buy a new graphics card; test it out; return it to the store; and maybe pay a restocking fee that is less than $55) in much less time. While I was there, I mentioned my frustration to the manager - this is a 5 person shop, so "manager" is a bit of a misnomer - only to get a "we don't build AMD computers because we feel they're unreliable" response. He missed my point entirely, but I knew I would end up punching him in the face if I continued the debate so I simply drove home.

Now comes the hard part: I know that motherboard manufacturers get returned merchandise all of the time since these are probably the most common parts to fail in a computer. AMD, my CPU manufacturer, was going to be another matter entirely. Since they can almost always point to the motherboard and say it's their problem, they aren't going to be so willing to replace the CPU.

The only good thing that Aurora did was provide a written statement recommending that I change the CPU first, something I didn't need to be told but may have needed in case AMD pushed back. I called up AMD and, 10 minutes later, I had an RMA number with nary a hint of resistance. Furthermore, I was told it would take approximately 5 days total: they will provide 2-day shipping to and from their facility free of charge and would ship out a new CPU as soon as they receive mine.

Wow. AMD got major kudos for excellent customer service at the end of that call.

"If AMD was that easy, Gigabyte [my motherboard manufacturer] should be a cinch," I thought.

To Gigabyte's credit, their Customer Service department was very good though a tad difficult to understand due to the heavy accent of the Asian gentleman helping me out. He asked me to do a few other tests that I've never tried before to confirm that the motherboard, indeed, was dead. So how long would it take to get this replaced? 2-3 business weeks depending on how fast I wanted to ship it there. (1 week to examine the motherboard to determine if they should repair or replace it plus standard 5 day shipping back.)

2-3 weeks? Are you kidding me? I had been down 10 days already and could not afford 2-3 weeks more. And with motherboards costing under $100 it's actually more cost effective to buy a new one since my CPU will be covered under its warranty. This policy is stupid, in my opinion. I realize that margins are very thin in the motherboard market, but while I can run a computer without my sound card (and can afford to wait 2-3 weeks) I cannot without a working motherboard. What they are doing is akin to highway robbery in my opinion.

Here's the irony of this situation: I dropped the CPU off to be sent back to AMD at the FedEx shop on the Saturday before Labor Day just as the place closed (read: it wasn't actually sent until Tuesday), and the CSR I spoke with was incorrect about the CPU coming back as 2-day shipping. Instead, it took a full 5 days for it to arrive. If I had RMA'd the motherboard, it would have arrived at around the same time.

What motherboard did I buy? Believe it or not, I bought another Gigabyte. My logic is that a) it ran spectacularly well until this incident and b) they have one of the best, if not the best, price points on the market given the quality of their product. Given that electronics are especially susceptible to static electricity, it's quite possible (and even likely) that my muckity-mucking around in the case to permanently install the Western Digital hard drive is the reason why my computer stopped working, so there's no reason to blame the hardware for something that is probably my fault.

I do plan on RMA'ing the motherboard after all, and selling it on CraigsList, eBay, or simply keeping it as a spare. I'm not sure which, but if I do sell it and get $40 for it then the cost of the new motherboard goes from $70 (after rebates) to $30. Not a bad deal considering what happened and that I now have USB 3.0 support, which I didn't have before this happened.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering the Living

I have had many (older) good friends pass away during my life, and invariably during the memorial service someone says that this is a time of joyful reflection and not mourning. It is okay to be sad at their passing, they continue, but we should be thankful that they are reunited with God.

On this ninth anniversary of September 11, I'd like to think of this as a joyful occasion then. I am not talking about those who passed away on that fateful day, however; I am talking about those who survived that day, whether they were in the area on the day itself or had some relation to the events of that day. It is not my intention to trivialize the deaths of the many who were lost. Like you, I mourned them, even more so since I worked in the South Tower up until the year prior. In fact, on that day I was on the 31st floor of the tallest building on the lower East Side (save for those in the Financial District) and had a clear view of the events as they occurred including the planes' entry in the buildings. But while I do not forget the many who passed away on that day, I take joy in the lives of those who could have been lost but, because of some measure of grace, were not. Here are a few examples.

Frank Segarra landed in San Francisco on September 10 for a business trip. It wasn't until the next day, when he was awakened in his hotel room by his wife at 6am, that he realized he traveled via Flight 93 just 48 hours before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

Mike Tewes worked for Marsh & McClennan for nearly 5 years. After receiving a job offer from The Bank of Tokyo, he reflected on the situation and decided to accept it. It was in July 2001 that he spent his last day of work on the top floors of the North Tower.

Chaya Mozes was known at Morgan Stanley as a very hard working manager (EVP, specifically) who arrived early to her office on the 68th floor of the South Tower and left late. 9/11 started like any normal day for her: she arrived at 7:30am; checked her email; and started compiling her agenda for the day. When the first plane struck the North Tower, the South Tower immediately started evacuation procedures. Being 5 months pregnant, however, made walking down the 68 flights of stairs nearly impossible, and in fact she had to be carried for the remaining floors due to her exhaustion.

These are a few examples of people who survived the tragedy of September 11. While I can spend this day lamenting over all that was bad during that day, I am instead choosing to focus on the lives of those that I know that by some measure of fate, Divine Intervention, or whatever you choose to call it made it through the day unscathed. Let's not forget the memories of the deceased, but let's also be sure to not forget the joy of those whose names are not on the roll call that is read every year.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Lazy-fare"

Quick note: last week I didn't write an entry here - it was intentional. I keep writing about the same nonsense, news articles, and I am starting to become hypersensitive to the fact that I sound like a broken record. So I wanted to step back; write less frequently; and write about more quality topics.

My oldest daughter visited last week. As I am wont to do, I took the opportunity to help her increase her vocabulary as we spent time together. This visit, the words of the day were vernacular, diction, and colloquialism. (I also explained the difference between a clutch and a klatch since she is a fashion minded social butterfly, but I digress...)

To explain vernacular I used the examples of borough vs. boro, doughnut vs. donut, and light vs. lite. To hone the point, I essentially described the latter word in each pair as an expression (pun intended) of laziness in communication. In fact, I said, so many people were lazy in their desire to communicate that these words eventually made their way into the language, i.e. the vernacular.

laissez faire (n.) - the practice or doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of others, esp. with reference to individual conduct or freedom of action.

(Or, as my Economics professor once summarized the concept: "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." This could be used to describe the slothfulness that I'm describing; I hope this sheds some light on this week's title.)

Being lazy is a common problem in many aspects of our lives. Of course, we can easily look at everyone else and chuckle to ourselves how others do a job "half assed," but it's always easier to do that than to look in the mirror. I recall a particular experience when I was 10 years old or so. My favorite music group at the time was the rock group KISS and I would frequently draw pictures of the photographs of them. One time, I saw a particularly moving picture of them in concert, in full fig, with pyrotechnics ablaze behind them, and I quickly sketched a simile of this photograph. After finishing I ran to my father to show him. His response to my hastily drawn picture? "If something isn't done right, it isn't worth doing at all."

How many times have we done things "just good enough" and then expected to be rewarded in some grandiose fashion as if we just cured cancer? This guy seems to think he should be allowed to skate into senior management just because he thinks he's good at what he does. He doesn't seem to think that leaving at 4:30pm every day to pick up his kids from afterschool is a problem even though he drops them off in the morning as well.

Here's a hint: just good enough isn't good enough unless you are quite content to stagnate in your professional career. If you don't have trigger finger sensitivity to what your management feels is the value you bring to the organization then you will not be able to successfully ensure that they realize that you are indeed valuable.

In his book How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox says that you should always arrive first and that you should stay latest among your peer group. (But, he adds, you shouldn't stay terribly late since that indicates an inability to stay on top of your workload.) The very pertinent example is that you'd never arrive for a movie 15 minutes late or, if I may extrapolate this further, leave before the now ubiquitous outtakes have been played after the movie credits. In my opinion, spending a few minutes extra in the morning and late afternoon shows a dedication to your role and a desire to excel at what you do. This sends an unmistakable message to management that you take your responsibilities seriously, which (when coupled with delivering results) is the greatest "value prop" that you can convey as a contributing employee.

Monday, August 23, 2010

All Things iPhone

After a week "off" (read: no blog) I feel a bit better. When I reviewed my last two weeks' worth of tweets I found a lot of stuff relating to the iPhone, so I thought I'd share my thoughts about what's happening. After all, the iPhone continues to dominate everyone's thoughts - it is my duty to provide alternate viewpoints or news on alternatives in order for you to be able to make informed decisions...right?

Right. You'd still buy an iPhone, wouldn't you?

Maybe not. According to a recent article in InfoWorld, the quality (or lack thereof) of AT&T's network is starting to have an impact on iPhone sales. Of course, the article goes on to describe the underlying survey's implication for Verizon since, of course, everyone assumes that the elimination of the exclusivity contract would mean that Verizon would be the first carrier to...uh...carry it. The article does note that the survey respondents probably didn't consider that current users would have to buy a new phone if they wanted to switch from AT&T since they are a GSM provider while Verizon is CDMA.

I still claim that Apple's contract with AT&T is going to run its course fully before any switch occurs. This is counter to all 5 million articles that have been written that swear up and down that an iPhone running on Verizon's network is due out "any day now." (One of these articles may be found in PC World, but it's funny that the second word in the article is "mythical.")

In the meantime, if you really want an iPhone on a network other than AT&T, you can try this nifty gadget. It is a "docking station" for your iTouch that turns it into a phone. All you need is a SIM card (which means you're stuck on GSM so Verizon is still out of luck since CDMA doesn't use SIM cards). More details on this device may be found on CNN. (Note that my tweet on this device incorrectly noted that you'd be able to use your iTouch on Verizon.)

The only thing I don't like about this: I didn't think of it first. Where was that lightbulb when I needed it? If this isn't a money press then I don't know what is. In fact, since Apple is so hung up on sticking with AT&T, then this gadget may be the only thing that truly stops (at least in the short- to mid-term) the onslaught of Android phones. Don't believe me when I say that Android is worth a look? Watch this video on the Motorola Droid 2 (with Android 2.2 pre-installed) to see what I mean.

In the "I like Mobile Phone Applications" department, it was ironic how Apple is constantly berated for refusing to allow certain applications (formal guidelines yet to be determined since Apple isn't providing any specifics on what they will allow and won't) yet the head of their App Store himself has several applications for sale - written after he joined Apple - that have the same "features" of other applications that have been rejected. How's that for hypocrisy? (Worse, the applications are still for sale after that article busted him on it, but he tried to hide his affiliation with Apple. Ah, the inability for one to escape their past on the Internet is such a good thing no?)

If you do have an iPhone or iTouch you've probably played Angry Birds. It's a fun game - not terribly difficult - but now it wants to be the next Buzz Lightyear. Personally, I'm ambivalent about the concept, but from a practicality standpoint I don't think anyone can unseat Woody et al from the store shelves.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Education

In late February of this year, I wrote about a forward thinking school district where, among other things, it installed wireless Internet on one of its school buses. This type of thinking, I claimed, was allowing students to get more done rather than abuse the privilege as people suspected would happen.

Education has been a steadily under-appreciated topic in this country, in my opinion. Granted, there are the stories of teachers who are relegated to the "rubber room" in NYC (which has since been abolished); the teachers union who protects the under performers simply because they have tenure; etc. But I personally know several good teachers who are paid ridiculously low salaries considering the importance of the work they do. (And yet they still do it because of their love for what they do especially given how much of a positive impact they can have on today's youth.)

An Op-Ed piece in the NY Times yesterday highlighted exactly the amount of damage our neglect and perverse ways of protecting the institution at the expense of the overall quality of the result has done. The piece discusses the precarious drop in the number of people with college degrees (especially among the all-important 25-34 year old demographic) to 12th place out of 36 developed nations.

This is, as you can imagine, scary to say the least. Given the state of the economy you'd think that people would do whatever it took to secure a college degree in hopes of it providing some degree of financial and career stability, but it would seem (at first glance at least) that we are doing just the opposite. Worse, the government are doing nothing to help the situation given that funding just isn't being made available with the view that it is a long-term investment in our country's future. Consider, for example, the state of Hawaii where (according to the article) schools were closed 17 Fridays last school year for budgetary reasons.

Let's not hold the students blameless either. I recall working for 7 months out of every year (starting with my junior year) and going to school for 1 semester only. Part of this was due to the fact that I wanted the work experience, but I also needed the money to survive while attending that one semester. Those 7 months' of wages funded my automobile, insurance, books, etc. so that I would be able to complete my education. Yet there seems to be an attitude of laziness that prevails now where "just good enough" is all that people strive for.

Consider, then, one school district's answer: the Mount Olive, NJ district school board last week adopted a policy where the grade of D is no longer in use. Instead, students either get an A, B or C or they get an F. The minimum passing grade, then, has been raised by an appropriate number of points thus forcing them to get beyond the "just good enough" attitude and actually put some effort into their learning.

In college calculus, we had a professor who, one semester, would not allow anyone to leave the final exam until they got every answer correct. We would turn in our exam; he would grade it; and if there were incorrect answers he would even provide a small hint to help us solve the problem. We were annoyed - after all, there were other finals to study for - but in the end we were better for it because he forced us to truly comprehend the previous 3 month's worth of instruction.

Such an attitude would not hurt today, but we need to get everyone on board: the students, the teachers, and the government's budgetary captains.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Who to Believe?

It's like a deluge...of tweets. When I first signed up to Twitter, I tweeted about everything. I had a lot on my mind so I felt the need to climb the highest e-mountain and shout it all at the top of my lungs. That mountain, of course, was Twitter.

Then the love affair faded. After venting my frustration with the business world - "I cudda been a contendah!" - I went back to doing what I did before, namely playing my guitar and BF:BC2 at night after the baby went to sleep and the wife and I watched our daily shows on the DVR.

But this week, my tweeting has roared back to life. It has a mind of its own, and it seems uncontrollable. It's almost as if...as if...my level of tweeting has double dipped into the realm of hyperactivity.

Speaking of double dipping, it should be no surprise that I'm still reading articles about a W...or is it just a V? The answer to that depends on who you ask. MSNBC claims (in an article in the Politics section, go figure) that any double-dip recession eventually experienced will be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. if enough people scream about it then the masses will keep their wallets under lock and key.

I don't know about you, but a) if people are unemployed then they aren't going to spend a lot of money no matter what shape the economy is in so fix that first and get back to me and b) I've been keeping a tight lid on my family's expenses for quite some time and I'm sick of doing it (contrary to my wife's claim that I am a Financial Nazi), so I will happily spend more if given a justifiable trend allowing me to do so. So I'm going to pooh-pooh that article as a gross misunderstanding of psychology and the effects of repression of the masses.

Another article - this time from FOX Business - says that economists...

...wait...are these the same economists that MSNBC talked to?...

...originally underestimated the depth of the recession that we are supposedly no longer experiencing. They make it seems superficial by claiming that the GDP only rose by 2.4% instead of the projected 2.5%. But when you consider that the GDP is in the area of 14 trillion dollars, 0.1% is actually a lot of money: 14 billion dollars. That's a lot of Ramen noodles.

I'm sure those of you that follow that jump will state that I'm being unfair because the article goes on to state that consumer spending fell from 1.9% to 1.6%. However, if you dig a little in Google to find out what "consumer spending" really is, you'll find that it is a static percentage of the GDP. It is, in fact, 70% of the GDP but that also includes healthcare spending by the public and the U.S. government. So if your cough is really bad, you could be contributing to the recovery of our economy!

This week's obligatory Facebook commentary is brought to you by the letters H and X and the number 4. (The leet speakers out there will recognize this as h4x which is a computer savvy way of spelling hax or hacks.) Apparently, someone wrote a simple computer program that combed Facebook looking for data that was not hidden by proper security settings. The result was an aggregation of 1.5 million users' worth of personal data.

Do you think a real hacker wouldn't want this? How about a real company? If you said no, think again. The data, which was put on the Pirate Bay website, has been downloaded by several names you'll recognize: Disney, Lucasfilm, Proctor and Gamble, and The Church of Scientology to name a few.

It may be coincidence, but Facebook also announced this week that it is delaying the possibility of an IPO until 2012. Apparently, this is "allow Facebook to bolster its user base beyond the 500 million mark, and clear up mounting criticisms over privacy issues." (The emphasis is mine.)

Imagine that.

If you're looking for some place to talk to your friends, share photos and videos, etc. try using Multiply, the largest social networking site that you've probably never heard of. When I last spoke with David Hersh, one of the cofounders of the site, in mid-Spring he told me that they had 14 million subscribers. While this is a mere drop in the bucket compared to Facebook's 400+ million users - it's less than half a percent - it is about as inconsequential as the 2.4% vs. 2.5% GDP that I mentioned earlier.

Look for an interview with David to be published in the next few weeks.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Good Money / Bad Money

With each new week, I worry just a little bit more that I'm boring my readers. After all, it seems like the same stuff surfaces each week in the news and, of course, I'm compelled to write about it. In a perverted way, I almost want to start my own hedge fund because it seems that the companies I've been writing about show up for a few weeks in a row and not for the right reasons.

Take, for example, Dell computer. Two weeks ago I told you about a lawsuit against them for knowingly selling computers with faulty parts in them. Ironically, the law firm defending them was a victim of the same crime with over 1,000 defective computers from the company.

This week, Dell is once again in the news but for other reasons. Apparently, it has been using subsidies paid to it by Intel to inflate its own earnings statements. In my personal opinion this should have never occurred but not because what it did was against the law. Instead, it is my opinion that the subsidies should have never been allowed in the first place, since Intel paid them to ensure that Dell never used computer chips from rival AMD in its products.

This violates the spirit of the Sherman Antitrust Act since doing this not only prevents fair competition but it encourages the premium that users pay for Intel chips. If AMD's market share increases then demand for Intel's products decreases resulting in a drop in price (according to supply / demand economics). Intel's actions, therefore, amount to an artificial inflation of the price, which is in essence fraud.

Regardless, Dell is paying the price (pun intended) for this by being assessed a $100mm fine for its actions.

If Dell was truly interested in making itself better, it would take a page out of the GM playbook. As you'll recall GM accepted bailout money from the U.S. Government in exchange for a second chance at staying solvent. This new lease on life gave it more time to establish itself in China, which now accounts for more unit sales than the U.S. market. The reasons are interesting, and I encourage you to read the article for which I have provided the link.

Since Facebook has been in my blogs a lot lately, here is my obligatory mention of the site. Firstly, Mark Zuckerberg is fighting a lawsuit where he apparently was hired to write Facebook according to a contract that the opposition has produced (with his signature on it), versus him writing the site after being inspired to do so. This has huge ramifications, profitability be damned, because if he loses a majority state in the company then he will essentially lose control over determining the path to profitability. Considering that this company's profits have a lesser chance of appearing than the release of Duke Nukem 3D under his leadership, this might not be a bad thing necessarily.

Finally, if you thought that the picture someone took of you in a pirate costume while blitzed at the party last weekend was funny, think again. I'm sure this isn't news to anyone, but considering that the web prevents anyone from forgetting anything, those embarrassing photos have become fodder for potential employers when they look for reasons to not consider your application for employment. And people laugh at conservative prudes like myself when I use discretion around people with cameras...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Collection of Thoughts

I arrived in Dallas late last night and, when I got up this morning to check my email, I realized that I didn't write an entry yesterday. ("For shame!") What could I discuss today?

Apple. They are becoming a piñata because of their missteps. Last week, they admitted there were issues; said they would give free bumpers to people who requested them; and then said that every phone has this same issue. Of course, the other phone manufacturers called bullshit on Apple and hit back rather hard.

Goldman Sachs. They settled with the government; paid a $500mm fine (which is nothing to a company that practically mints their own dollars); and admitted no wrongdoing. I will be the one to call bullshit on this one and wonder aloud how our justice system is so screwed up that a major player in the financial meltdown essentially gets off with barely a slap on the wrist.

These topics have been overexposed that I'm sure you're tired of them, so here's something completely different.

Recognizing that companies are making a fortune mining your personal preferences from your usage of the Internet without your consent, two gentlemen formed a company called Bynamite that allows you to control who gets what from a "wallet" of personal information. Better still, because this information is so valuable to the marketing engines of almost every company in existence, they are already talking about it in the context of a business transaction, i.e. "I'll let you know what I like if you'll give me a 20% on this purchase."

Will it fly? The concept is more than logical. But my concern is that they may be a little too late to the party.

Before signing off, I'd like to say goodbye to Lt. Col. Pete Scaglione. I counted myself to be a good friend of his, though he was more of a fount of wisdom to me than anything else. Mr. Scaglione, whose youngest son is one of my best friends from high school, was a very decorated Vietnam helicopter pilot; a sage adviser; and a wonderful person to have as part of your life. He passed away on Sunday night, and is survived by his wife and four children. "Semper fidelis!"

Monday, July 12, 2010

The New Toyota, Part 2

After last week's entry, I received a fair amount of flack from readers complaining that I was anti-Apple and that the company's products really don't deserve the constant tongue lashing that the haters keep delivering. I can relate to their viewpoint: nearly 20 years ago I was berating the Windows lovers for hating OS/2, which was obviously a better operating system. It was frustrating because I was right on the technical points but I missed the bigger picture, which is that a company has an obligation to its user community to do the right thing. (IBM let the OS/2 user base down considerably back then, but that's a story for another day.)

I'm not going to rehash last week's story, but I find it ironic that accusations have been leveled again against Apple after it appears that several iTunes accounts have been hacked. The Infoworld article describes how several hundred accounts have had unauthorized purchases made on behalf of the account owners, sometimes vaulting the purchased applications into Apple's Top Picks section of the App Store (according to something I read elsewhere regarding this).

Is Apple responding to the problem? Yes they are, but they are doing it Ostrich-style: they are putting their head in the sand and pretending that the problem doesn't exist. Or at least that's what they are publicly telling the world. "iTunes is an impenetrable application store architecture!" is the feeling I'm getting from Cupertino.

Am I being too hard on Apple? You tell me.

At least Apple - with regards to the iTunes situation - is reacting to a situation they did not initiate. Dell apparently initiated the situation and pretended that they did not know about it. From 2003 to 2005 they intentionally sold computers with faulty parts to resellers and customers alike. Ironically, the law firm defending the company from the ensuing lawsuit owned 1,000 of these computers, which Dell refused to fix after they stopped working.

What is wrong with these companies? I'm at a loss to explain it. Am I suggesting that all companies should be altruistic or at least have good intentions behind everything they do? I'm not naive - I know that'll never happen - but there are certain companies that represent more than just capitalism, e.g. Apple with its never ending pursuit of elegant and sleek design; and Dell with its exceedingly high standard of product quality and customer service.

Are these companies now relegated to the stable of companies that have made headlines for the wrong reasons such as Enron? Certainly not. But one can't help but feel a tad disappointed at the way companies that used to be untouchable (at least in my eyes) have fallen from grace just a little bit when it was quite preventable.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The New Toyota

Apple has finally "jumped the shark." For those of you who aren't familiar with the idiom, it was originally coined in response to an episode of Happy Days when Fonzie jumps over a shark to prove his courage. Critics and viewers alike consider this point in the show's history to be the beginning of its decline. In general, the idiom is used to describe a moment of downturn for a previously successful enterprise.

In my opinion, Apple is close to reaching that point if it hasn't already. Granted, Steve Jobs and Company have never been in the majority in terms of market share, but they've always had a rabidly fanatical following. Still, when you call your user community a bunch of idiots and fail to acknowledge that the real problem lies with your untouchable product then you start to sow the seeds of your own ruin.

And this is exactly what has happened. CNN recently reported that Apple's response to users' complaints about cell phone reception quality (or the lack thereof) is to not hold the phone a certain way. Due to the fact that the antenna is wrapped around the outer edge of the case, Apple claims that people holding the phone with their hands wrapped around a specific corner are going to cause significant deterioration in signal strength. But (!), they continue, there is also a software bug that displays bars indicating that the strength is higher than it really is. So we'll fix that and you, Mr. User, should avoid holding the phone with anything other than a part of plastic tongs that grip the phone like Thetis did to Achilles when she dipped him in the River Styx.

User: Dr. Jobs, my phone doesn't work when I do this.
Dr. Jobs: don't do that then.

Let's be clear: I'm not predicting the eventual filing of bankruptcy by Apple. They will never go away. Historically they've done not much more than have ebbs and flows of popularity. These are sometimes severe, but that's all that's ever really happened to them. You can confirm this by looking at their 5 year stock chart.

But when a company that was hitherto considered untouchable due to the forethought they put into their product's design refuses to admit that their product has a crucial design flaw in it then you have to wonder when the sting of being slapped in the face will wear off of its user community. And, more importantly, will they start to consider joining the ranks of those who decided that phones based on Google's Android operating system aren't so bad after all.

This is an especially critical question since Google started rolling out Android 2.2 (code named Froyo) to phones. Froyo is widely considered to be an extremely strong alternative to the iPhone and contains many features that iOS 4 does not.

Additionally, I have to wonder how Apple could have missed the "cover the corner and watch the reception go down the tubes" problem. Or, since they are claiming that a software bug is causing a higher number of bars to be displayed than what reflects reality, did they know about it but thought they could get away with it?

R&D: Our product has a significant flaw in it.
Sales: Who cares? We're on top of the world!
R&D: I'm not sure that is a good idea.
Sales: We're untouchable! No one will notice.
R&D: But people will feel betrayed.
Sales: Ha! What are they going to do? Leave us for another company?

Apple? No. Toyota.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Copyright Infringement?

Can we get some consistency please?

This past week, a Federal Judge in New York granted Google's request for a summary judgment against Viacom based on the "Safe Harbor" act. Viacom had filed suit (and does plan to appeal this ruling) stating that YouTube is a "den of thieves" since many copyrighted works are uploaded every day to the site.

Since some of these legal thingumyjigs may be foreign to you, I'll break it down a bit.

First, a summary judgment is requested at the outset of the case by one of the sides. Essentially, either the plaintiff or the defendant are telling the presiding judge, "look, your honor, this is a huge waste of time; the other side has no chance in hell of winning this case so can we please cut to the chase? Judge Judy comes on in 15 minutes." While this is requested in a relatively frequent manner, it is rarely granted because judges are generally predisposed to give everyone their day in court. The fact that this was granted in such a huge case where there are undoubtedly layers upon layers of intricacies is quite surprising.

Second, the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA, passed in 1996) states that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not liable for the actions of their users even though it is not unusual, even expected to some degree, that said users will engage in some nefarious activity (like MP3 file sharing).

One could argue that a site as popular as YouTube has ability to screen every video to see if it is copyrighted material. First, videos are uploaded at a ridiculously fast pace: in May 2009, 33 minutes of video were uploaded every second to the site. Secondly, the set of copyrighted works is so vast that there is no possible way to check the videos against the entire body of works.

The counter argument, of course, is that if they can't do it then the site shouldn't be allowed to operate in the first place. But I digress...

The reason I yearn for some consistency is that, just last month, another Federal Judge agreed with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) when they filed suit against Limewire stating that they continue to operate even though the service is frequently used (probably more often than not) to peddle copyrighted material around the Internet.

What's the difference between the two cases? I don't know. Both YouTube and Limewire are services provided as a convenience to the Internet community. Both are used for sharing content.

The only possible difference I can see is that material is actually uploaded to YouTube, meaning that a copyright claim submitted to Google will result in the offending video being pulled from the site. Limewire does not accept uploads - it merely acts as a broker between two people's computers - so therefore it is powerless to remove the content. It could try to prevent the advertisement of copyrighted material for sharing purposes, but what's to prevent me from taking an original work that I wrote and giving it a name that is identical to a work in the same genre from another artist?

I'm not one to advocate the intentional scoffing of the law, but it seems to me that these two cases are identical in spirit and yet they have far different outcomes. On top of this, the RIAA has garnered a reputation for bullying other entities because they have their heads so far up their asses that they refuse to admit that their business model is extremely outdated. But, again, I digress...

In any case, it will be very interesting to see if Limewire appeals this ruling now that the Google ruling has been rendered. In the end, we're all affected because the direction that either case takes (don't forget that Viacom has stated its intention to appeal) will have an impact on the way we currently use the Internet. After all, you upload content to Facebook, MySpace, etc. and there isn't a single person on the planet that subscribes to none of these ubiquitous services.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Adaptability

This may seem obvious, but business isn't about who can do the neatest thing - it's about expectations and delivery. In other words, your customer has an expectation that you'll meet their needs; and you have to deliver on your statement that you can meet that need. This doesn't have to be a retail business. In fact, any business transaction falls under that statement.

But sometimes business professionals just don't get this aspect of their jobs, careers, or their business (if they own one). As a result, they get mired in the past while their peers leap ahead of them because they are willing to embrace the future or at least the present. Consider, as an example, the publishing business. With the ever growing (and I'll claim that it still is growing) use of the Internet as a source of information, publications find themselves in an interesting position: do they continue the part of their business that is the printed publication?

I asked Gary Paris, publisher of Contemporary Bride magazine, about this. He and I had an interesting discussion some days before where I made the statement that the business of printed publications is a dead one, and he countered that there was still a place for it. Having thought about it, I realized that he had a good point so I asked him to elaborate.

"The lesson that was learned by many people in business is that is very important to embrace new ideas and technology to survive in any business climate. The same lesson can be applied to the publishing industry. While many publishers do not embrace new ideas and business models, the publishers of niche magazines like Contemporary Bride do. It is a matter of survival, plain and simple. We feel that by placing a high quality magazine with great content, such as featured articles and real wedding stories, it will always keep the attention of the reader regardless of the age."

Gary stated that the medium doesn't matter as long as the need is met. And, for the publishing industry, sometimes the need is to have something in their hands, to examine closely, hold, touch, etc. However, he recognized that people like to have options available, and so he adapted his business to account for the Internet. Of greatest interest is his statement that it is a matter of survival to be able and willing to adapt. Without a willingness to adapt to stay on par with current trends, your credibility suffers. And when that happens, a customer's ability to envision you delivering on your promise to meet their needs lapses as well.

Just today I read a great article in Wired Magazine (online, no doubt) about a company that is aiming to kick out the heavyweights in server manufacturing by replacing the high power consuming CPUs (Xeon, Itanium, or Opteron chips) with a collection of much lower power consuming Intel Atom. I mention this here because it demonstrates how this business realized that by changing the means of attack that the traditional hardware companies have used they could develop a compelling reason for businesses to look at them as a viable alternative. It remains to be seen, of course, how successful they will be with this particular venture, but the outlook is promising.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Building a Brand

Ah, the Holy Grail of marketing: a brand that is so well established that the sales team has no purpose other than to print out contracts and collect commission checks. This is a win-win because the salespeople would rather stay at home sipping a glass of Chianti (with fava beans no doubt, eh Sir. Hopkins?); the business has a greater degree of confidence that the product(s) associated with the brand will make money; and the marketing people / advertising agency gets to come to work for another week.

Take for example one of the most vile things ever to be consumed by the American public: The Jersey Shore. Personally, I think that the glamorization of the cast with their obvious lack of social mores (see this article); no sense of etiquette; and monstrous egos is a crime against America. (Note to BP: when you figure out how to contain the Gulf Oil spill, can you apply the same technique to The Situation? Thanks.) In spite of my misgivings and no lack of desire to vilify them, I have to admit that they are the hottest thing on TV right now (Real Housewives of New Jersey be damned). In fact, it seems that you almost can't turn on the television right now without seeing Snooki or The Situation in front of the lens. And, in the world of marketing, this couldn't be counted as a bigger success.

Building a successful brand does not, then, matter about the quality of the product. In fact, I've written in past entries how Microsoft trounced Apple in the desktop wars because Apple didn't learn from IBM's mistakes about trying to build elitism into the brand. Microsoft, instead, realized that the Johnny Appleseed approach made more sense and continues to dominate to this day as a result.

I'm not marketing expert to be honest. But, to me, building a successful brand is possible when the following things are accomplished:

You understand your target audience. People are going to fall into one of two camps: the "want to believe" and the "want to disbelieve." There is no middle ground. Understanding how to reach both of those groups is critical because they will have different levers that may be used to sway their opinion.

You develop the right message. Snake Oil Salesmen back at the turn of the last century were so successful partly because they took advantage of the public's predisposition to being gullible. Undoubtedly, you've heard the prank "did you know that 'gullible' is not in the dictionary?" If you were unlucky enough to be the "prankee" then you know how easy it is to want to run to the nearest dictionary to see if it's true. (And, if you were like me and misspelled the word, you looked positively simian when you came back to them and said, "Oh my! You're right!") This doesn't mean that you have to resort to shenanigans by any means, but you should realize how precious your 30-seconds of undivided attention is and pitch your message appropriately.

You ensure that your message is heard repeatedly. As I've mentioned before, a former boss wisely pointed out that the reason why you see a Ford F150 commercial every 5 minutes during the Super Bowl is that Ford wants to make sure that their message is embedded in your subconscious, since you'll forget what you saw as soon as the game starts up again.

Looking at two failures that caught my eye, Nick Jr.'s Fresh Beat Band was lambasted on the maternity discussion boards because the show emphasized dance (and music) but the critical eyes of the parents who controlled the TV remote (and many of whom spent more than a few years in dance classes themselves as kids) repeatedly harped on the fact that the dance skills or the four characters was positively lacking. The producers may have tailored the show for the kids who would ultimately watch it, but the true audience is the mothers who decide what shows get time on the small screen at home.

Similarly, this weekend's very disappointing opening of Jonah Hex seemed to (based on what I've read) attempt to convert yet another comic to the big screen but one without the ubiquitous presence like Batman or Superman. Granted, I'm not an avid comic book reader any longer, but I've never heard of the character. Couldn't the studio have chosen one that already had a well-established brand? Even if they couldn't do that, there could have been a better attempt to gain mindshare before the release. I can't recall seeing a similar commercial for this movie, and I unfortunately spend more time watching the TV this past year than I care to admit.

Ultimately, marketing is yet another function of sales, i.e. if you can convince the recipient that they need what you're hawking simply through information consumption then their is no need to take more overt measures to convert them to your way of thinking. Keep this in mind as you consider how best to approach your boss to influence their decision for the next manager; what to say to the hiring manager when you're trying to get a promotion; or even when you're writing something for public consumption.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ceilings and Floors

This week will be a momentous week.

Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed below 10,000, and it didn't close above that mark on Friday. Worse, it didn't break 10,000 even during intraday trading on Friday, and that's a bad sign.

I never really understood the true psychology behind ceilings and floors on the stock market. What I mean is that I understand the statement that investors cling to numbers that fall on nice, definable boundaries. Furthermore, I understand that once those boundaries are crossed, it's not easy to cross them again in the near future and in the opposite direction. Still, I don't know why this happens.

But that doesn't matter. What does matter is that the DJIA is in dangerous territory this week. Last week's jobs report (CNN Money had a nice write-up) had a very important detail buried in it: in spite of the fact that 431,000 jobs were added in May, 411,000 of those jobs were for US Census based work, which is very short term work indeed. Doing the math, we see that the private sector only added 41,000 jobs, which is a very small number.

(Edit: minor correction proving that my college degree doesn't mean I can "do the math." The government added 411,000 jobs but cut 21,000 jobs, which is how you arrive at a total of 431,000 jobs for the month. -Larry)

Add to this the economic worry in Europe and the oil sector worry due to the BP fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico and we see a nasty picture starting to form and that's without taking the housing market into consideration. Regarding that, the April new housing starts report indicated an increase in this important sector, but applications for new building permits declined. This means that any optimism will be short-lived. And when coupled by the already high inventories; job market woes (dissuading people from investing in real estate if their jobs are on shaky ground); and tighter lending requirements you can see that the housing market is still in for a rough ride.

Still, everything for the moment rides on this week.

If the DJIA can break through the 10,000 ceiling in a convincing fashion then we will have dodged the economic equivalent of cardiac arrest yet again. "Convincing" means, to me, that there must be good trading volume and (!) when 10,000 becomes a floor afterward, a test of that level should pass (i.e. we don't cross into the sub-10,000 territory just as easily). Otherwise, we may be in for a rough 6 months again as we start to define what may be the second dip in the W pattern that I have been warning about for months now.

Ironically, if you had been watching the DJIA graph you would have known to sell short against the index back on May 3. I typically use a two-line exponential moving average (EMA); MACD; and Relative Strength Index (RSI) as my trend analysis tools (above and beyond open, close and volume). The MACD already showed a negative outlook but on May 3 the RSI also showed a sell signal. Had you sold short before the end of the day you would have made 10% in one month - not a bad haul in my opinion. (Still, hindsight is 20-20 so who knows what I would have thought on May 4 had I looked at the graphs then...) With the EMA also showing sell on May 28, it makes a compelling case to at least consider selling short again.

Disclaimer: I am not a stock analyst; Certified Financial Planner; etc. My statements above are my opinion only and do not represent a solicitation to buy equities; sell equities; do the dishes; or take a vacation. Use at your own risk.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wrong Side of the Dice

(Personal note: given that I'm a self-professed conservative, I would have never though that I would rely so much on the New York Times, since it is generally recognized as having liberal leanings. But one can't deny the quality of the writing nor the timeliness of the topics there.)

There are oodles of documented cases where, during the years when the housing market was flying off of the handle, many parties took advantage of the situation to assume more risk than they should have.

- Financial institutions created new and "interesting" (better than some words I could use) ways to loan money to people who could not understand how they were getting in over their heads.

- People who really shouldn't be allowed to borrow money used "no income verification" package to by a house using a mortgage they couldn't afford.

- People who thought they could make a quick buck flipping a house by slapping a fresh coat or paint on the interior and exterior.

I've purchased a few properties over the years. I always stuck to my guns and would only pull the trigger if I knew I could make the payments under the most conservative of circumstances. This meant that I got a 15-year, fixed rate mortgage, with a minimum down payment of 20% giving me a target to hit in terms of my income requirements.

That doesn't mean I wasn't offered some interesting ways of getting a mortgage. The best story in this regard occurred when I was doing some "homework" to determine monthly payments; interest rates; etc. and told the mortgage broker what my upper limit was in terms of a monthly payment. Since it was a specific property that triggered this investigation, I mentioned my concern about being able to put down 20% to avoid mortgage insurance. His response was that I could get a piggyback loan (basically a smaller loan based on the equity in the house that would be generated by my down payment) that would then be used to get me to the 20% mark.

"What would my monthly payment be in this instance?" I asked. He responded that it would be $300 over my limit.

Hello? It was 5 minutes ago that I told you it was a hard limit, and now you're suggesting that I ignore it blatantly?

I have similar stories from previous discussions and/or purchases. The point that I'm trying to make is that while I agree that it isn't solely the fault of the financial institutions that the housing market is in such a mess, they aren't even close to being the minority when it comes to assigning blame.

This morning, in the NY Times, there is an article about people that simply decided to stop making their mortgage payments. Their reasoning is that they can't afford to pay all of their bills due to the crappy economic conditions we have all experienced in the past 2 years, so they would rather pay the electric bill (which can get shut off rather quickly if they don't) and not pay the mortgage (which could take nearly 2 years to complete the foreclosure process).

It's a matter of survival, in other words.

In some instances, the people tried to work with the banks to modify the mortgages but the banks would have nothing to do with the concept. Now that the people are no longer paying the mortgage, however, the banks are crying foul.

"From the lenders’ standpoint, people who stay in their homes without paying the mortgage or actively trying to work out some other solution, like selling it, are 'milking the process,' said Kyle Lundstedt, managing director of Lender Processing Service’s analytics group. LPS provides technology, services and data to the mortgage industry."

Oh please. How is anyone going to sell a house worth 50% of the mortgage, requiring the bank's approval, when the bank has already demonstrated an unwillingness to modify the mortgage for the people currently occupying it? This isn't "milking the process" by any means.

One thing my father taught me growing up is to take responsibility for my actions. As he would put it, "you made your bed; now you sleep in it." The banks need to own up for their actions since frequently they are the cause for the situations their borrowers now face. When discussing why their house is worth so much less now a couple pointed out that they refinanced at the height of the market.

"It was a stupid move by their lender, according to Mr. Pemberton. 'They went outside their own guidelines on debt to income,' he said. 'And when they did, they put themselves in jeopardy.'"

How is this "milking the process?" If the banks had not approved loans that were clearly at a high risk of default then they wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. Here's a hint to the financial institutions that lend money:

risk /rɪsk/ –noun

1. exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance: It's not worth the risk.

2. Insurance .
a. the hazard or chance of loss.
b. the degree of probability of such loss.
c. the amount that the insurance company may lose.
d. a person or thing with reference to the hazard involved in insuring him, her, or it.
e. the type of loss, as life, fire, marine disaster, or earthquake, against which an insurance policy is drawn.

"High risk" means you have a larger chance of losing your investment. So when you made these high risk loans and ended up on the wrong side of the dice you shouldn't start whining about it.

See you next week.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Panic..Panic..Panic..

Here I am, a day late with my blog, and I haven't a clue what topic I will write about. (Or at least that's what I want you to think.) Yet here I am.

British Petroleum has found out the hard way what the consequences are of not having all of your contingencies accounted for prior to finding out that Murphy is going to hit you where you are weakest. (There's no need to add a link there, since you can throw a stone and hit 20 news websites with articles on the Gulf disaster.) I have also discovered this on a few occasions - most notably this week with my blog (see? I wasn't necessarily fibbing after all) - and I can assure you that losing control of the situation is never fun, especially when the situation wasn't fun to begin with.

My wife says I have "control issues." I counter with the statement that I simply don't like not knowing what to expect.

In ITIL (which is, for those of you who aren't familiar with it, a collection of business processes that have been refined over the years so that businesses can get the most of their investment in IT), Business Continuity is the collection of processes that help you recover from a calamity of any sort. In my own words, there are five primary parts to this.

Develop your recovery plan. When 9/11 occurred, Morgan Stanley very quickly had their operations moved to another facility before the stock market opened that same morning. This quick turnaround time would not have been possible if they hadn't already determined what their recovery plan was.

Document those plans. Another key component is writing down every detail around your recovery plan that is necessary. The litmus test for the effectiveness of the documentation is in the answer to this question: "could someone fresh out of college read these plans and get our business up and running in a relatively short time?"

Be prepared. Morgan Stanley moved to a base of operations on Varrick Street, something that would not have been possible in the short time period if they had not already established this location as a backup center for their operations. I don't know the specifics of the equipment that was already in place before 9/11 but you can easily imagine that they had enough IT assets (including computers, phone lines, etc.) to resume critical business operations with the "turn of a key."

Practice your plans. Disaster Recovery, as it is sometimes called, requires quick execution to prevent (to the greatest degree possible) loss to the business (whether revenue, customers that go to competitors, etc.). This requires that everyone knows their role in such a situation and can simply execute their role with little direction.

Refine your plans. IT is not a static operation. With many moving parts, it is constantly changing as new technologies are incorporated into the business. Periodic review and refinement of your recovery plans is a necessity to ensure that they are in lock step with the current state of the business.

Here's the "big deal" moment. While this all sounds like something that many of you will not have to deal with, a "personal recovery plan" is still an essential component to any successful professional. More specifically, I will make the claim that there are many variables in the business world that make navigation a treacherous activity at times. Corporate politics, the effect of the economy, changing management, etc. can all have an effect on your ability to evolve in spite of the fact that you may be the best at what you do.

Consider the following (with specific names removed for obvious reasons): at a large company last year, the head of a particular division was laid off in spite of the fact that they were quite good at their job and were well respected by everyone reporting to them. The reason, they were told, was that there was someone in their organization that could do their job (although they didn't have benefit of nearly two decades of experience like this individual had) with almost the same level of proficiency but at half the cost. The loss of expertise / experience was more than made up in the salary savings the company experienced. What did this person do wrong? They fulfilled their responsibilities quite well, but at the end of the day it became a financial decision only.

So what is your backup plan? Do you even recognize the need to have one? Once you have this on your radar, you will easily see the benefits of extending this concept to even the finer details of your professional life. Questions such as "How do we continue moving this deal forward if we lose John's sponsorship of our product?" or "How will our [cyclical] business continue to survive if this economic downturn lasts longer than expected?" will be easier to answer with a little forethought and proper planning.