Custom Designs

A few years back, I was thinking about a service that would let consumers (actually ardent enthusiasts) design their stuff and have it manufactured. For example, if you wanted a specific type of Hammer that you couldn't find at any hardware store, you could design this product and have it manufactured by the company offering this "manufacturing service". To make money, this company would essentially license your designs and essentially sell them to other customers.

Don't beat on the specifics above! I never really thought this through and even just writing it out above, I can see plenty of holes in the strategy. However, I thought (and still think) that for a certain segment of the market, the need for the service is there. As you get better and better at certain things, you need the tools you use to be customized according to your tastes as much as possible. For example, I would like a specific type (shape) of mouse that has an integrated laser pointer, presentation functions and air mouse capabilities. If I can't find this particular product on the market, why can't I have this custom produced for me? I guess if you're really that much of an enthusiast, you could now use a number of manufacturing options, enabled by direct access to Chinese manufacturers, to bring your products to fruition (regardless of whether or not you just want the one product for yourself).

I just realized that, in a manner, such a service exists (on the cheap). This service is called Kickstarter! A few examples of products that I've been looking for (not an exact match but close enough): Ringbow and Solid Titanium Pen + Stylus. Kickstarter has the business model down and anyone's free to create and publish anything that will have a wide appeal. The assumption being that you're good enough to design something that is not only scratching your itch but will do the same for a large segment of the population.

Goes to show that in this day and age, everything is essentially becoming possible!

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The future of Project Glass?

Really cool video showing the possibilities of Augmented Reality especially when the devices are completely invisible in your daily interactions (note: it's dramatized so it's not really a "feature" video):


This is a glimpse of the future and it's precisely why I'm all for Google's efforts in this area (regardless of how premature they may seem at the moment).

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What the iPhone competition should look like...

I've been thinking about making a switch from the Apple iPhone for a few months. It's not that I'm unhappy with my device. It's just that I've gotten a little bored :) The same app-in, app-out. Making sure you close all apps running in the background so as not to use up too much battery. There's really nothing "exciting" going on (at least for me). There's a lot of competition out there and I thought I'll give Windows Phone 7 (or the upcoming 8) or Android a little whirl. I'm very intrigued with the Windows Phone interface and equally intrigued by the applications Google's launching for Android.

A few days back, I decided to see what Android devices are coming up in the next few months. Specifically, I was looking for a flip smartphone. I remember the Motorola Razr, a feature phone with incredible design chops. Looking at the hardware ecosystem now, all phones have the same candy-bar form factor. I thought perhaps there's a cool piece of hardware out there for Android? In short, there's nothing like the Razr out there right now.

And then I chanced upon this design concept by Kristian Ulrich Larsen.


Granted, it's not the flip phone I was looking for but I really like the uniqueness in the hardware design. Note how the design enables new work paradigms. It's got a little bit of Courier action going on in it as well.

Not this exact device but this is exactly what device makers need to be doing. They need to push the limits to the point where they are not seen as directly competing with the iPhone. They need to create their own category of devices enabling functionalities that simply cannot be replicated by the current generation of devices. However, this is easier said than done. I have some hope from Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility. Perhaps, we'll see a true competitor to the iPhone come out in the next year or so?

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Management - the Steve Jobs way

Interesting article on Jobs' management style and how it's being emulated:

The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?

Lots of people have said lots of things about this topic. I just want to note that people like Steve Jobs are incredibly rare and if you're thinking of picking up his management style thinking that you'll be able to execute it to achieve the same levels of success, you're putting yourself up for certain failure.

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Yahoo!'s new CEO

Marissa Mayer is the new CEO at Yahoo! In case you didn't know, she was one of the key people in the Google executive branch looking after the Google local offerings. Now I don't specifically follow the movement of tech. industry people much but after following the major companies for a while, you get familiar with the names of some key individuals in each company. All I know about Marissa, from her days at Google, is that she was at the end of it all a products person. I believe this is exactly what Yahoo! needs: a product manager rather than someone who only has media industry/management chops. The great thing with Marissa is that she's coming from a company that's made its bet on the internet all the way through. I bet that Jerry Yang has more of a positive outlook towards Yahoo! now.

Side note: according to reddit, there's another benefit to this appointment! Choice quote from darthabraham:

Yahoo board of directors: "Guys, we're failing because we don't have a business model."
Some genius: "Let's hire one!"

:)

Update: Here's a video you might enjoy on the newly minted CEO.


Update: Interesting article on the APM program at Google which was spearheaded by Marissa.

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Internet Ad Spending on the Increase

Just read this report from Nielsen: Global Internet Ad Spend Sees Double-Digit Growth, Outpaces Other Media.

A lot of change is happening to the consumption landscape overall. Though internet advertising is on the rise, note that TV is holding on to the major chunk of ad spending. I've read earlier reports that indicate that TV viewership is also on the rise (perhaps a direct result of the global recession). Note the overall growth rate for Africa and South America and how it simply dwarfs the other regions.

There are a few things that need to happen before digital takes over offline in terms of advertising dollars. I think two main pieces of the puzzle are: 1) Someone needs to figure out how to bridge the internet-lounge gap and this includes not only the devices utilized but also major content partnerships required. Google is in a good position to extend YouTube here (and they've been trying) but a lot more work needs to be done. 2) A change in mindset is required on the part of advertisers especially in emerging markets. They need to understand that digital advertising is a long term play and they need to work towards building a brand presence online. You'd be surprised how many companies still don't get this.

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Pakistan and the God particle

I've been following the Higgs boson along its path of discovery for over a year now. BBC produced a fantastic documentary covering all aspects of the work done in search for the Higgs. This post is not about the technical achievement recently announced by the LHC. Though on that subject, note that Prof. Brian Cox summarizes the finding quite well on Twitter:
In simple language, CMS have discovered a new boson, and it behaves like the Standard Model Higgs
The post is about the late Dr. Abdus Salam, Pakistan's one and only Nobel laureate. You've got millions of people in the country who went about to make it their business to destroy this man, apparently following a strict Islamist agenda. I just want to point out that perhaps the Doctor was more of a Muslim than the majority of us Pakistanis. At the end of it all, he was in fact doing God's work.

It's painful to see this happen over and over again not only in impoverished nations but also in the developed world. Alan Turing is another pioneer who received the worst of treatments at the hands of a world that depends on his research on a daily basis.

If Pakistan is to prosper, the government's number one priority has to be widespread education for its masses. There's really no other way out of this hole we've dug for ourselves.

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Prometheus - ranting against the rants

This post was essentially triggered by the abject reaction a lot of people have to the movie Prometheus. I know an IMDB rating of 7+ already shows that the larger population quite liked the show, though talking to multiple friends in Singapore and seeing some scathingly bad reviews is giving me the impression that a lot of people were quite dissatisfied with the movie overall. Here are two sample reviews:

What’s Wrong With Prometheus (a Partial List)

Prometheus: An Archaeological Perspective (sort of)

I liked the film overall and this is not really a rebuttal. I just want to take a step back and look at the strong negative reactions people have to movies in general (much like the reviews I've linked to above). You know something is not right when even movies such as The Intouchables get really negative reviews. Is it because of economic conditions where people have become movie aficionados simply to ensure that they only watch the highest quality of shows? Perhaps it's a cultural phenomenon - a sign of how "cultured" you are if you only appreciate the "best" of movies?

Taking these two movies as an example, the largest criticism seems to be how unrealistic they are. For Prometheus, it's about how unscientific it is and for The Intouchables, it's about how it never really focuses on the difficult/emotional life of paraplegics and simply chooses to show happiness all around. I had a very long discussion about the former with a friend of mine who focused on tearing apart all scientific inaccuracies in Prometheus. And all I could think was that we were arguing over a work of fiction. Who said that fiction has to be grounded in reality? Yes, you could get a better movie out of it if your plot was grounded in reality and nothing contradicted our current understanding of science. Perhaps, it would've been more approachable for a lot of people. But this alone does not warrant dropping the scale from a good show to something that is an absolute waste of time.

As a visual medium, isn't it the purpose of a movie to tell a story that is not simply an extension of our own thoughts and experiences. Isn't it all about making us think and the general experience of it all? So what if The Intouchables is also not grounded in reality? When people watch works of fiction, they want to escape reality. Another good example is the movie, The Grey. I recommended this to a friend of mine who thought it was utter trash! Perhaps in cases like these, you need to pause and consider whether you watched the right movie or not. Perhaps, you never really got the point. A user on metacritic sums it up well:
Closer examination of this movie seems to indicate that it is an analogy. It is really about man facing his God and his fear of death in a dignified fashion...which is what Liam Nesson does. As proof I offer the 4 line poem the main character's father wrote and posted on his wall. It is repeated several times so you can't miss it...you're not supposed to. It is the last thing Liam Neeson's character thinks of before....well you know. The message is quite clear. Live to fight another day, die with honor, strength, bravery and above all dignity. I think the movie was beautifully done and superbly acted. - BlueRick
So, here's my request to critics and movie aficionados in general. Please, suspend belief for a little bit. I'm ok if you use your "superior reviewing prowess" to scale down movies somewhat and point out the holes. But please, don't shift the scale to "utter trash" simply because you can't fathom that certain things are possible. You're definitely entitled to your opinions and I respect that. I just feel that there is so much you're missing out on.

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Why Files Exist?

Reading along on Hacker News, I came across this really interesting article: Why Files Exist. I'm, generally obsessive with respect to my data! I want to minimize the number of touch-points I have and with the apps ecosystem enabled with iOS, Android and Windows Phone, it just seems like my data is all over the place. The bigger problem is that this data is hardly accessible. Syncing through iTunes is not really the best option as well, though I think Apple's done a pretty good job enabling direct sync with the files on your PC. So is there really a way we can move away from files and folders while still enabling data portability between applications?

One way is the Platform dependent approach which is pretty much the approach that all providers are relying on right now. Let's use Google as an example. All my interaction points with Google's services have a basis in this massive database Google hosts. I have my emails, calendar data, contacts saved up on the cloud and as I sign-up for new services (e.g. Google Music), I'll create more entries in this database. I'm not a Google Docs user but any files I have are easily synced up there as well. Hence, if Google really wanted to, they could use this database to in time get rid of my dependence on files and folders. Every service introduced by Google in future, just needs to follow the "app" route i.e. files are abstracted as entities in the database. There is seamless integration between all Google products and services since everything is relying on "my database". Of course, this approach has some issues e.g. all my data is hosted by one provider. What about allowing others access to this data? Google is generally quite good with data portability but again, there are no general agreements around this.

Additionally, you have multiple platform providers so now I have data with Microsoft/Apple/Amazon/Facebook etc. All that's really needed is some level of integration (and cooperation) between the different platforms and we can abstract out the file/folder construct completely (to the extent that every application maker relies on one of these platforms). Of course, I should be allowed to export all my data out from one platform and move it to the other. Also note that the file/folder construct becomes a legacy format and is still supported to the extent that I should be able to import all my files and file hierarchies to the platform itself.

The second approach is for all platform owners to unify on a single standard: an open database of sorts which can be accessed by all platform owners equally. The ownership of this is with the user. It's my database of information including all documents I've written, music/video files I own, photos I've taken or any other number of things I've worked on. Whoever offers a new service must integrate with this. I don't have to save ".psd files" to my computer anymore, since everything is stored in this database. If you want to speed up operations and allow for offline support, there could be a local instance of this database on my computer (always backed up with the cloud). Much like OpenID, someone has to provide this service and there has to be large-scale adoption here from all application makers.

The above is not meant to be a technical article. There are a lot of considerations to the two approaches and some major concerns with both of them. I just think that we need to move in a direction where it becomes easier for common users to manage their data and gain control over it.

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Google's Lounge Play

I haven't found the time to catch the entirety of the Google I/O event feed but looks like the company did some really interesting announcements. One of the more prosaic product introductions is with the Google Nexus Q. I'm trying to figure out where this device sits in with Google's lounge strategy (the way the company plans to go up against Apple/Microsoft in the home entertainment space). It's very unlike Google to try and sell a product like this. Perhaps, it's an experiment, much like Steve Jobs' Apple TV. But then again you have to consider that typical Google experiments are quite unique and are trying to push the envelope in one way or another (Google Wave, Google Glass, that smart car?). What's the I-must-have-this-device feature here? Is it the shared playlist? The design? The tap feature enabled via NFC? I think the company needs to advance the Google TV concept further (which also begs the question: why would I buy the Nexus Q over a Google TV for the $299 price range?).

Google Play, however, is exactly what the company needs. There just has to be a more unified strategy to bring all this content to the lounge.

I'm surprised that home entertainment is one area where pretty much all consumer electronics companies are being a bit lax. It just seems like this is yet another market where Apple will simply show up with an elegant solution which will form the default in the industry.

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Google Now

My hands are itching to try Google Now! I think Google is in an insanely good position to leverage all their different products and services (as well as bleeding-edge research) to offer really compelling new products. I'm gonna hold back commenting on this since I really need to see whether this actually works in real life or not (as advertised). This may just make me switch over to Android!

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All work and all play

I'll let the video do the talking. Do you agree with the generalizations? Apparently, the video is backed by several research studies conducted by the Brazilian company Box1824.


Update: Just wanted to point out that when I say "do you agree with the generalizations?", I don't mean that I disagree with the message. I think the split between the different generations is a fairly common understanding. Us millenials are really shaping the future in a manner completely different to the older generations. There's no right or wrong approach but our approach is definitely a lot more fun :)

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Jawbone JAMBOX

I rarely do product reviews anymore mainly because there's tons of information out there on all aspects of specific products. However, I need to at least make a note of this special little speaker I just bought: the Jawbone JAMBOX. I had a few issues pairing it with my Windows 7 PC where the sound was completely distorted. I managed to fix it by re-adding the device to the computer (don't ask me why it didn't work the first time!). The device is brilliantly designed and I've never heard bass as strong as this in a device this small. You can "update" the speaker as well by connecting it to Jawbone's myTalk service (I installed a new voice for the speaker controls). The most remarkable thing for me is the fact that the Jambox is essentially completely cordless. It has almost a 10 hour battery capacity and is paired to your iPhone/PC via Bluetooth. What a remarkable difference technology has made in our lives! I'm not saying that there haven't been speakers like the Jambox before but I'm willing to bet that there are hardly others with better execution in this price range.

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Watch what you're doing online

Another good reason to be careful of your activities on social networks: weknowwhatyouredoing.com. I haven't researched the online forensics industry. I think there's a lot of money to be made by offering services to help people "curate" their online presence. I bet most of the companies in this space essentially focus on getting rid of the "negative" aspects of your profile rather than essentially creating an "image" for you on the web i.e. what comes up when you Google your name and in what order.

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Online Advertising and Metrics

Insightful article: Online Advertising has to change its definition of success. I've made references to my point of view in this area before and this is something I'll talk about in a lot of detail soon enough. The ideas are in my head but I need to put it down in actionable terms. I think no one's hit the nail on the head with respect to online advertising and aside from metrics used to measure campaign effectiveness, there's a lot that can be done from a product perspective to drive innovation in this area. I'll talk about this freely mainly because this is an area that's quite personal to me (it's bugged me for a long time and it's an area where I see tremendous growth opportunities).

One more thing with respect to this article. I saw this on my LinkedIn profile. I must hand it to the LinkedIn editors who're curating the news experience on the site. I've seen nothing but insightful articles listed there and I've seen that their throughput has been nothing short of remarkable.

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June 2012

Maybe it's because it's the middle of the year but have you noticed how many events happen around June in general? Just in the past few weeks we've had E3, Microsoft's Surface event, Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 preview, Apple's WWDC and now Google's I/O. I'm sure there are a number of good reasons for this, one of them being preparation for the later part of the year where companies compete for the holiday rush. I blog infrequently but I can imagine the load on full-time bloggers.

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Google I/O 2012

Wednesday, Google will make a number of announcements around their multiple product lines at their annual I/O developers event. It's also where the company is expected to make its entry in the tablet space. I've read rumors of the Google Nexus 7 and I'm not going to comment on it given that the rumor may be completely false (and more importantly, may miss the mark in terms of what Google's planning to announce after the Microsoft Surface announcement).

What I'm more excited about is the rumor that Google is planning to compete with Amazon's EC2. I'm loving App Engine so far but I can imagine that a lot of bootstrapped startups (with hopes of making it big one day) do not want to hedge all their bets on a proprietary platform (e.g. the Datastore model with App Engine is fundamentally different to relational databases). For a majority of such initiatives as well as for a lot of SMEs, the EC2 model makes a lot more sense (I believe it's called Infrastructure As A Service).

The other thing that I'm hoping for is something along the lines of developer tools. I'll write about this in a lot more detail later but there's a reason why Microsoft has managed to keep growing its developer community for so long. The company has a very solid understanding of developer tools and the Microsoft tools that are used to support Windows development are perhaps best in class across the board. I think Google needs to do more work in this area specifically.

From a tablet perspective, I've expressed my views earlier. Google needs to do to the tablet industry, what it's trying to do with automated cars, virtual glasses etc. Perhaps not a huge departure from the current model but they need to push things forward rather than competing with Apple/Microsoft toe-to-toe and on incremental features. Pricing is also an important component and if rumors hold true, the Google Nexus tablet will be more of a competitor for Amazon's products than Apple's or Microsoft's. 

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Weaknesses


Recently, I had an interesting discussion regarding "weaknesses". More specifically, what we identify as a weakness, be it in our professional or personal lives. I think it's important to have a perspective on this at a personal level. If not only for that much coveted job where you'll most likely be asked this question but also from a personal development perspective. A Senior Executive where I work once told me that he took a week off every 6 months to look inside himself and ask whether or not he was happy with what he was doing and if he was happy, what areas he could improve on. What struck me about this conversation was that he'd do this exclusively during this one week break (i.e. not bundle this together with his vacation time etc).

I got to thinking about this topic and to be honest I don't have a clear and concise answer for this. What I do think is that things that I may consider as weaknesses in my life are, to be honest, not really weaknesses. The more appropriate designation is: areas of improvement. In almost all such cases, the solution is simply a function of effort. Can you design beautiful web applications? Can you talk to clients with confidence? Can you manage your team effectively? Do you have a view of what you want to do in the next 10 years? Give me any example and I'll show you how it's related directly to effort. I'll also show you how you have a base level of capability in each of these and can identify areas of improvement (that can be addressed with effort).

From that perspective, if you have a weakness, it's actually a weakness in how much effort you put into things.

Just about a month back, I would've told you that I'm weak in web application development. For my own personal projects, I'd never explored anything beyond .NET. I'm currently working on a new side project and for the first time I said to myself that it's high time I learnt the ins and outs of web application development. Hence began my foray into Google App Engine (more on that in a separate post). Am I really good at it now? Not really, but all those weekends where I slaved around trying to understand how applications are structured on the web, have resulted in a mockup that brings a smile to my face whenever I load up localhost. It's an area of improvement and I see exponential increases as I scour the web for more knowledge here.

True weakness is something that's not so easily addressed. It's not a simple function of doing something over a short period of time and then moving on when you've reached your desired level of competency in the area. True weakness is something that you must battle with for the rest of your life or something that you need to consciously address for the remainder of your life.

So what then do I consider a true weakness in my life? It's hard to admit this and I guess one reason I'm saying this out loud here is because I have a funny feeling that my family will never see this! Here's what I think are my real weaknesses:

  1. Family Contact - I never blogged about this but last year my dad had a close call. He was in the ICU for a few days and to cut a long story short, he made it out alive and quite well from a pretty bad situation. I remember seeing him in the hospital when I went back to Karachi. He was in and out of consciousness, so in the brief time he was attentive, the doctor got my siblings and I to go say "hi" to him. The doc said to my dad: "Mr. Jamil, don't worry so much" and my dad, looking at us, immediately quipped back: "My kids have flown from all over to see me - I'm not worried about anything". That period was quite emotional for me and I realized in that moment that I was weak. I'd taken my family for granted, almost assuming that my parents and siblings were going to be around forever. This is probably the worst of them all and something that I'm trying to address by staying in deep touch with the family as much as possible. This is a lifelong effort and something that I consciously try to address each day.
  2. Risk/Reward Appreciation - I really do have a very skewed perspective of risks and rewards specifically in relation to adventure sports. I've run a full marathon (finishing it in just about 5 hours) with absolutely 0 practice. I've done this on a number of occasions, from running to rock/mountain climbing. I forget how easy it is to wreck yourself completely and sometimes how foolish I am in making these judgments. I've toned down significantly since I had an ankle fracture a few months back and am making a conscious effort to be more careful/prepared in my physical endeavors.
  3. Death Is Inevitable - This is not exclusive to me. This is also your weakness. We all believe that we'll be around forever and all our life decisions are dictated by this simple belief. It's a false belief. Death doesn't wait for anyone. It didn't wait for Steve Jobs and it won't wait for Bill Gates. Forgetting that we'll be dead someday (maybe today, or tomorrow or 10 years from now) is perhaps the greatest folly of mankind. Remember each day that someday you will cease to exist and that will bring the much needed change you're looking for in your life. It's really that simple. Again, something you and I will have to struggle with until our last breath.

So with that in mind, if someone asks you for your weaknesses, what're you going to talk about? From a professional perspective, I'd say that you make a note that what you're referring to is an area of improvement and something that will be addressed in X amount of time (or the steps you're taking to address it now). But in your own head, try and and figure out what're you true weaknesses and how do you need to address them consciously for the remainder of your life.

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Microsoft Surface - The Tablet Edition

Microsoft has finally made their salvo in the tablet wars - Microsoft Announces Surface: New Family of PCs for Windows. You can watch the full video of the LA event here. More importantly, check out the first "dubstepped" ad (one of the incredibly rare "cool" Microsoft videos - kudos to the Marketing department):


Here are my thoughts on the actual device and its announcement:
  1. This really showcases Microsoft's internal understanding and strategy behind tablets. The company views the tablet functionality as an extension of the PC form factor. Where Microsoft pushes towards integration, Apple moves towards form factors for specific use cases. At the end, it really comes down to what type of consumer you are. I am whole heatedly in the Microsoft camp for this. I've always been looking for a dual-use device: notebook form factor giving me the "oomph" I need for my daily work supported with a touch and handwriting interface. Side Note: I'm actually waiting up for the Lenovo Ideapad Yoga.
  2. To be honest, I don't think Microsoft's directly competing with the Apple iPad here. The straight out giveaway is loading up the whole of Windows 8 Pro on the machines. This is technically in the ultrabook market now. I absolutely love the stylus and I'm curious to understand what type of digitizers they're using to make this happen.
  3. What does this mean for Microsoft hardware partners? Big big question this one! Perhaps it may just push the PC makers to try some new stuff.
  4. This one's about the event itself. Microsoft really needs to improve in this area. I don't care that there were some technical issues here and there. That's to be expected since technically it's still a beta product. What can't be explained is their choice of content for the presentation as well as the seemingly lackluster attitude of the presenters. I've seen Balmer/Sinofsky present before and they just didn't seem sure of it in this one. The worst part was spending an inordinate amount of time telling us things that one really can't convey with words. You can tell me once or twice how smooth/solid the device is and how beautiful the whole clicking mechanism is but I need to experience this for myself and words are not a substitution for that experience.
I'm actually quite excited to try this device out. I've seen the original Surface out in the wild before (won't say where) and it was really being used as a coffee table (with coffee mugs and all). It's great to see that they're leveraging existing branding. Let's see how this ecosystem evolves. 

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Xbox 720

Just before I cap out this round of updates, I thought I'll chime in on the recent Xbox 720 leak. It's good to see that internally Microsoft is thinking about pushing the envelope and leveraging their lead in this space to connect everything together. Timing really is everything. Very soon, Apple's going to make a big push for the home entertainment space. Microsoft needs to connect all its dots together pretty soon and evolve from a core gaming strategy to an all-encompassing "lounge strategy". Google has tried to make inroads in this space as well and they haven't really been that successful. The interesting thing is that all companies have the backing they need to make a push here (Microsoft perhaps being in the best position). The race is just about to begin!

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Nokia's Woes

It pains me to see what's happening to Nokia. In my eyes, Nokia effectively created the mobile revolution and look how far they've come. It's very difficult to analyze a company like Nokia. Consider that the marketplace they're trying to dominate exclusively belongs to the Apple/Google juggernaut. They made a bet to go with Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and that bet's not panned out as expected. What went wrong?

Two immediate things I can think of:
  1. Company culture - There are tons of articles on this so I'll keep this short. The Nokia of old had a strong product focus and was driven internally much like the leading consumer brands of today. Somewhere down the line, a disconnect developed - not only between internal teams (e.g. the teams in charge of software and hardware) but also a shift in focus away from product engineering. There are several tales of how Nokia never leveraged their R&D facilities that were sitting on a goldmine of cutting-edge ideas. Now, they're relegated to managing the hardware whilst pretty much outsourcing the entire software component to Microsoft.
  2. Understanding of the market - This is something I mentioned in my previous posts as well. The way to effectively compete against Apple and the myriad of Android devices out there is not to follow them but to follow the customer. The Apple/Google combo meets the marketplace's current needs and the companies evolve to the next step in a very methodical/evolutionary form. A company can break this entire cycle by taking some bold bets. With Microsoft's deep understanding of speech recognition and handwriting recognition, why couldn't the Nokia-Microsoft combo have come up with a device that provided customers with something they couldn't get from their iPhones and Android devices? I'm sure there are several other areas they could've pushed the envelope in. You could argue that they look at this from a product road-map perspective and a lot of innovation is perhaps down the line. But for now, the device is entrenched in the smartphone camp and the brand association has already been made. What's this association? The association's that the Nokia Lumia is the same as an iPhone/Android device (just with a different interface). With that understanding in the market, the consumers choose to vote for the dominant forces, rather than those that're trying to play catch-up.
With respect to point 1, I was never really a huge fan of the Nokia-Microsoft deal and not because there are issues with Windows Phone 7 (side note: I think Microsoft's product is a breath of fresh air in the smartphone marketplace). I didn't like the fact that Nokia was ceding all this control they had on their phones, away to Microsoft. A better deal would've allowed Nokia to use Windows Phone 7 as a base Operating System and made the product their own (focusing on heavy customizations). Perhaps in this sense, Android would've been a better choice?

What about Microsoft? I'll leave that for another post. The company's planning to talk about the next step in the evolution of their mobile strategy at the Windows Phone Summit. As always, I'll have my ears glued for any interesting news. 

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Microsoft's Tablet

Just saw this on TechMeme: Microsoft Manufacturing Tablet to Rival Apple iPad, Says Insider

I have a sneaky suspicion that this will almost be a Zune Tablet (i.e. same form factor and largely the same functions as the iPad). I remember the fanfare that went into the HP Tablet PC announcement during CES 2011 only to be disappointed with a product that never really launched (actually, I'm not a 100% sure of the last bit but I haven't really seen any news regarding the launch of that device).

What Microsoft (and any other company that wants to compete with Apple in this category) needs to do is to not follow Apple in this space directly. Microsoft's product needs to be a game-changer or it needs to be a device that pushes the market in a newer/enhanced direction. I haven't researched the tablet market as much as I would've liked to, mainly because I've never seen tablet devices as more than "play-things". I'm old school that way - looking for convergence or satisfying my tech itch with products that don't overlap in function. I'm sure a lot of people get really good/creative use out of their iPads but I still find it lacking (mainly because my iPhone-Laptop combo can handle all my needs).

Some things I'd like to see in the Microsoft tablet:
  1. Stylus - Apple's done a fantastic job pushing Capacitive screens in the market and finger-input is the preferred means of interacting with these glass slabs for most functions. But I completely disagree with the late Steve Jobs' philosophy around styli. Someone needs to bring the pen-paper experience to tablets. In fact, we probably need to move in a direction where we have "intelligent" styli that could be bundled with a myriad of features.
  2. Form factor - The now defunct Courier project was a good start. I don't think that in its exact form, it would've seen much success in the marketplace. Having said that, it was a bold attempt. It was very unlike Microsoft to float the idea (makes sense since J Allard was at the helm for this). This type of risk taking is more reminiscent of Google. I'm not advocating the exact design of the Courier to be re-instated but I want the same approach: a device that brings forward completely new use cases for the consumers. Apple showed us how tablets should work for general consumption. Microsoft needs to show us the next level!
  3. Integration - Is there a case for integration here? Microsoft needs to show where this product sits. How well does this work with the general consumer's laptop-phone combo? Are we supplanting some component in this combo or replacing the laptop experience (highly unlikely)? Enrich my experience by showing why I "need" this device rather than showing me another flashy consumer electronics device to add to the heap.
Anyway, brief note this. I'll talk more about this when the announcement happens on the 18th of June!

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Customer Service Incident with Apple

(Note: Do check out the updates at the end. I'm also changing the post title since it seemed to suggest that Customer Disservice is a problem endemic to Apple!)

There's one thing unique about Apple and that's the association of its brand name with arrogance (often times). Sometimes, this permeates into the company's customer service and is compounded in a country like Singapore where you'd either deal with an "authorized service provider" or call up the service center (that's shielded from face-to-face customer interactions). I'm going to briefly mention what problem I was trying to get resolved today through Apple's Singapore Customer Service and then delve into the more important issue of what customer service means to Apple in the post-Jobs era. Anyway, you can skip the issue details and go directly to the second-last para to get the crux of this post.

Briefly, my MacBook Pro's battery has swollen out of proportion. This is a known defect with Apple's 15 and 17 inch MacBook Pro's and after a while the swollen battery starts interfering with the trackpad so it becomes impossible to use your machine (unless you take the battery out - which is not a good idea given the flimsy nature of the magsafe adapter). Anyway, 10 years using Apple products, this was the first time dealing with their Customer Service for me. I had done my background research on the matter and had seen a number of posts (e.g. this) detailing the problem and how Apple's customer service handles the issue. Sidenote: there are a number of such posts out there but eventually most of them turn into a mac vs. pc debate!

In my case, Apple Support Singapore took their time to understand the issue and explain to me that it's a product defect and that the battery should be replaced. I was probably speaking to a junior officer at this time since he put me on hold for 15 minutes to "check online about the problem". After 15 minutes, the guy comes back and hands over the phone to his supervisor, a "Mr. R" who tried to engage me in friendly banter. It didn't matter since I was pretty chilled through the whole matter (all I needed was a proper explanation of the matter i.e. is this thing gonna explode or what!). Sidenote: ofcourse I did want a free replacement to the battery given that it was a product defect but I wasn't hell bent on arguing for it.

Mr. R made the same pitch to me that you'll find on the other sites out there i.e. how it's a "consumable" and how these products are only valid for a few years and it doesn't matter whatever Apple's doing in the US (i.e. offering any replacements). Standard stuff but here's the thing that irked me and made this a "customer service" issue for me rather than a product issue:

1) Mr. R adopted an incredibly patronizing tone - at the minimum making me feel like I was computer illiterate and at the most insinuating that I was a freeloader. This is important - to be fair to the guy, he didn't exactly use those words but again communication is mainly about "tone" than content.
2) I didn't have much of a chance to respond to this guy since he made the biggest mistake you can make in such an interaction: he banged the phone on me - click! The only fathomable reason to bang the phone on the customer is if the customer's being overly biligerent (even then there are ways to manage the situation).

This sort of stuff makes you feel cheap. I was standing outside another Apple shop at the time I was having this conversation and it took me a minute to digest the situation. That's why tone is perhaps the most important element in any conversation.

Anyway, this post is not about incompetent customer service people! This post is about the post Steve Jobs era. The way I see it, there are tons of similar comments online where customer service people have disrespected the company's customers. However, Steve Jobs, regardless of his demeanor, brought a human face to the company. He had the charisma, the customer emails that he would reply to directly, and the care he showed in the design for all his products (I would still maintain that the battery swelling is a design flaw). After jobs, this "human element" has gone from Apple forever. To the outsider, the company is just another multinational company. In my opinion, the most important thing for Tim Cook to take care of (more important than building newer products) is to take care of its image in terms of customer service.

I don't care if Apple's service is better than that of its competitors - what I care about is that as a person, I should feel that I'm being given due respect as a paying customer. This first interaction has completely destroyed that image for me.

What about my notebook? I guess I'll have to wait until the battery explodes since according to the Apple Singapore Service Center guys, it's a defective product but it's completely normal but I should still get it changed immediately! [facepalm]


Update [31-03-2012]:
I called up Apple Singapore Support again today and spoke with another Senior Advisor (apparently R is also a Senior Advisor) by the name of Joe. Even he was surprised at R's attitude towards the case. I made a clear statement that I don't want any free replacements etc. All I want is for someone to have a chat with R. On a sidenote, I want to point out that Joe was exceptionally nice in handling the case. Goes to show how one bad egg in Customer Service can really cause problems.

Update [03-04-2012]:
I must say that except for this one person, every single Apple Support person I've dealt with so far has been super polite. Since I hadn't heard anything from Apple for a few days, I called them back today in the morning. It turns out that Mr. R is not based out of the Singapore office and the call was transferred out to some other location. Nevertheless, a very kind gentleman by the name of Jasper had a detailed discussion with me regarding this issue and assured me that follow-on actions will be taken. I consider the case closed from my perspective. All I wanted was for this to be flagged out to R and his superiors that banging the phone on customers is not something that Apple customer service is known for and damages the value of its brand. I'd like to believe that all this chasing around will someday benefit some other customer and perhaps help the offender turn over a new leaf.

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