Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

“What are the cool new apps you’ve seen lately?” To
this oft heard question, lately, there have been lots of
answers. So, mobile is indeed exciting and moving
fast. And, just recently, a fun new app came out that
instantly captured my attention — no, it’s not from a
Stanford dropout or from the ”innovation lab” of a large technology company. No. It’s from Snoop Dogg
— excuse me — Snoop Lion. Yes, that’s right, the
same artist so many of you grew up with. He’s
diversified his musical career into the business of his
own branded apparel, a television show, and now he
invades the greatest consumer stage of our times — our mobile phones. And, what’s more impressive is
just how he did it — the genius to observe and iterate,
to pull out the nuggets of lessons we have learned
and package it together with marketing that’s both
fun, easy, and devilishly derivative yet
simultaneously novel. The app is called “Snoopify.” I think it’s both a noun
(the app) and a verb (as in, to “Snoopify” a photo).
Essentially, you can take a new or existing picture,
and then open up a box of Snoop stickers (that’s
right, stickers) and overlay them onto the picture
before sharing it on every social platform . Most of the stickers, as you can imagine, have something to
do with Snoop and his brand, which makes for a
hilarious “Snoop filter” on these doctored photographs.
The first time I downloaded the app, I ”Snoopified”
about five times in the span of 10 minutes and shared
them everywhere. Snoop has essentially digitized himself and appified a scalable way to photobomb
any picture with his signature brand. And, this is the
best part — if you want to unlock the 2nd, 3rd, and
4th pages of stickers, pull out your credit card
because they’re locked behind a paywall. In-app purchases. Genius. From a marketing and branding standpoint, this is all
fascinating to me. Look at the intersections of trends
here: (1) Photos remain the premium communication
currency in our mobile world. Like SnapChat showed
with their expiring images, there’s no end to the
creative manipulation mobile software can offer to pictures. (2) Influencers with their own global, diverse
audiences can leverage networks like Twitter and
Instagram to breakthrough the noise and clutter of the
iOS app store distribution minefield. There’s the tactic
of growth hacking, yes — and then there’s the pure
organic lift a celebrity can leverage to surpass everyone else. And (3) Stickers. Just a few months
ago, everyone was hemming and hawing about Path’s
latest 3.0 update which include new sets of free and
paid stickers, perhaps influenced by the growth of
mobile messaging apps in Asia (such as Line, an app
which reportedly raked in US$50M+ in Q1 of 2013 by selling virtual goods in-app). So, Snoop and his team watch all these trends
converge, and steal a page out of the apps like Line
and Path. Great artists steal, right? And, what do you
know, it worked — I bought stickers, my first in-app
purchase of a digital good. Brilliant. I’ll be writing more about the overall trends I’m seeing
at the app layer here in my column this summer, but
an app like Snoopify, which rose quickly in the charts
earlier this week, breaks convention with how much of
the startup world views how apps are supposed to be
made and distributed. Distribution may, in the end, be just as, if not more, important than the actual app.
Maybe. The creator of the app doesn’t actually have
to do the hard-coding of the software — he or she can
commission it, and it can be developed elsewhere. Of
course, as I finalize this post, the app has already
slipped in the charts. When I started drafting this post a few days ago, “Snoopify” was in the Top 25 trending
free apps according to App Annie, but now as I
finalize this early Sunday morning, it’s slipped to #36
(on AppData) and #58 (on App Annie) and is ranked
#156 for grossing according to the official Apple App
Store. An app like Snoopify was destined to be faddish and
not a business. Or, maybe this is just the first move
by Snoop Lion to cut into the iPhone, on the app
level. At scale, it’s an incredibly clever technique to
extend his brand on top of other peoples’ pictures —
the greatest photobomb at scale….ever! Perhaps he doesn’t see enough quality engagement on his work
in popular music apps like Spotify or Rdio or other
myriad music apps. Maybe he’s tired of
Instagramming and receiving hearts in return, or
maybe Twitter is just for distribution to his fan base.
Maybe after stickers, he’s going to open private messaging inside his app, or broadcast scenes from
his next concert to a select audience. (I’m having fun
with this, naturally, though it’s not out of the realm of
possibility.) The opportunities on mobile are continuing to prove
endless, and for someone as creative as Snoop, even
a little mobile icon can represent the largest of
sandboxes. Of course, not every artist can go to the
lengths that Snoop went to in developing and
promoting his mobile app, but of the ones who do have this luxury, Snoop’s foray into the app store
was a brilliant move, complete with a built-in revenue
model, a platform for showcasing his brand, and
artfully blending some of the biggest trends in
consumer mobile behavior we have all collectively
observed. Well played, Snoop — well played.


Packing For Walden

Posted: May 12, 2013 in Column, GT, Opinion

I’m probably going to be consigned to whatever level
of hell is reserved for pretentious editorialists for
saying this, but sometimes when I’m trying to
evaluate some new piece of technology, I consider
whether Henry David Thoreau would have taken it to
Walden Pond with him. Wait, just give me a second. I know how it sounds.
Let me explain. I’m not some Neo-primitivist who thinks we should all
go barefoot and use calorie-impoverished diets to
extend our miserable lives. On the other hand, I’m
suspicious of things people invent that have no
purpose except a slight increase in convenience. Yes, time is the only thing that we, as privileged first-
worlders, can’t purchase. Convenience is the nearest
thing to buying time, however, and it commands an
understandable premium. That said, I can’t help but
feel that our connected world (inclusive of the web
and the devices we use to interact with it) is being populated with tools that would not look out of place
in Skymall. Google Glass is one of them (and I expect to see a
knockoff in my complimentary seat-back magazine
soon), but the objections against it are so obvious
that I abandoned several articles enumerating them
as unnecessary (one working title: HUD Sucker); at
any rate, they have been expressed perfectly well by others, and I don’t plan on duplicating their efforts.
Now that you know this isn’t about yet another opinion
on the thing, you can move your cursor away from the
“close tab” x, unless you’re reading this on Google
Glass, in which case I beg to inform you, sir or
madam, that it is not becoming. But to proceed: Technology is about empowerment,
and in fact I think that Thoreau’s modern analogue
would find many useful tools to bring with him on his
sojourn in nature. The man was, after all, hardly a masochist or even
what we would now call a Luddite, not that he had
many technologies to which he could object in those
days (“glow-shoes, and umbrellas”). He brought a
grinder with him in the days when mortar and pestle
were still in vogue, and of course many books, which were one of the primary means of entertainment,
along with drinking and conquest. Picture this modern Thoreau embarking on his
hermitage. He is not trying to return to the necessities
of cavemen — he wants to carve and fill a niche that
is big enough to hold him, his needs, and his edifying
pleasures — but no more. So while it seems unlikely he would find room in his
bag for a Slap Chop or personal air conditioner, there
are many marvels of modern technology which he
would be happy to utilize. If he could bring the entire
Western canon on an iPad (or e-reader, to conserve
power), surely that would be preferable to choosing a bare two dozen paper books. A compass would be
essential, but surely a GPS unit would not be amiss?
If a knife, why not a multitool? And if I’m honest, if
paper and envelopes, why not Twitter? But there
things begin to unravel. Enablers and facilitators Anyway, the point is not to make an inventory of
Thoreau 2.0′s bag (heavy waxed canvas, I think), but
to express that the criteria he might use to select
what goes into that bag are useful ones. The idea is
to find things that extend our own natural powers, or
grant us new ones. There is a real difference between the tools, digital or
physical, which empower us with new actions, and
the tools which merely make existing actions easier.
If you want to chop down a tree, it is not realistic to
do it with your teeth. Yet once a man has an axe, it is
only a continuum of difficulty between felling the tree with that, and felling it with a chainsaw. The
difference between the two is only effort. Similarly, if you want to communicate with someone
across the world, or retrieve information hosted on a
server thousands of miles away, you will need a tool
— even the most stentorian or far-sighted among us
could not hope to work in place of the most
fundamental element of a phone or the Internet. But once that connection is made, as you add speed and
modes of consumption, past a certain point you are
no longer enabling new actions, but rather facilitating
existing ones. I’ve always liked Samuel Warren’s description of
difficulty in Ten Thousand A-Year: “What is difficulty? Only a word indicating the degree of strength requisite
for accomplishing particular objects; a mere notice of
the necessity for exertion; a bugbear to children and
fools; only a mere stimulus to men.” Do we all need the digital equivalent of chainsaws,
reducing the necessity of exertion to its absolute
minimum? Note, I don’t think we’re quite there yet –
our devices and networks are still developing. But
once you see that something is not actually new, but
only does what another thing did before faster or cheaper, isn’t it a rational choice to draw a line there
— whichever side of that line you choose to stand
on? For more powerful tools carry risks and problems of
their own, and some find that the cure is worse than
the disease. It’s a mistake to write off such people as
simply old-fashioned, or ignorant, or afraid of the
future. There are sophisticated objections to these
things on the tumultuous outmost margin of technology, every spasm of which is breathlessly
extrapolated into some magical future by pundits with
brief memories and narrow considerations. Sometimes, on reflection, I find myself among their
company. That’s why I like this little Thoreau
exercise. A simple question: Does this add something
new, as an axe or a mobile phone does? Or does it
make something easier, as a chainsaw or Google
Glass? And in either case, at what cost? The answer is rarely surprising, but the process helps
clarify what exactly it is that I think I need from these
things, what they really provide, and what may come
in the future to replace them.

A few days ago I landed in England and, expecting
little, slipped an old UK SIM card into my phone. I’d
bought it when living in London five years ago, and
hadn’t used it in more than a year. But to my
amazement it was still active — as was the money
I’d added to its pay-as-you-go account 16 months earlier…and then I received a friendly text message
informing me that my data costs were now £1 per
100MB. Another SMS popped up when I emerged
from the Channel Tunnel in France a few days later,
informing me it would cost me 8p to send texts and
7p per minute to receive calls. Can you imagine any of that happening with an American phone company? Or Canadian? North
American carriers generally expire pay-as-you-go
accounts after 90 days of inactivity, and it’s at best a
struggle to get them to support data at all, much less
seamlessly, much much less at that price. (Which
isn’t even that great, by global standards; in India two years ago I was charged $1 for a full gigabyte.) As for roaming, you’re very lucky to get American or
Canadian pay-as-you-go accounts that can roam
across that vast undefended border at all, and if you
do, they’ll charge the proverbial arm and a leg. That
same UK SIM card worked just fine in Kenya last
year, and as I type this I’m about to land in Turkey, where I expect to receive another text informing me
that my UK pay-as-you-go number continues to work
just fine outside the EU, albeit more expensively.
(Update: yep.) What’s wrong with this picture? Why are America and
Canada so unbelievably awful? Yeah, I’m being
anecdotal, but there is all kinds of data to support the
notion that cell service there is outlandishly
expensive compared to almost all of the rest of the
developed world. (And worse than a lot of the developing world, too.) Part of it is laissez-faire capitalism run amok. Don’t
get me wrong. I’m a staunch defender of capitalism…
that is, well-regulated capitalism. Until 2008 that was a hard row to hoe among many of my friends, but that
recent embarrassing spate of financial cataclysms
have made it much easer. Why is my UK SIM card
relatively cheap to use in France? Because EU
regulators insisted on it. Why are America’s carriers
so parasitical, predatory, gouging and user-hostile? Because they can be, which in large part means
because their regulators (including, alas, Canada’s
CRTC) don’t insist on much of anything. Oh, sorry, no, my mistake. They do insist on
perpetuating this state of affairs. Consider the recent
breathtakingly wrong decision to make it illegal under
the DMCA to unlock your phone. This was one of
those classic bureaucratic catastrophes: every
individual step that led to it doubtless made sense to the people involved, who were too close to their
system to take a step back and notice that its actual
outcome was complete insanity. If anything it should
should be illegal to lock phones, not unlock them. This is regulatory capture taken to new heights of
Stockholm-Syndrome madness. And yet. At the end of the day the true power lies not
with the carriers, but with their customers. Alas,
American and Canadian customers seem to have
been hypnotized into a kind of learned helplessness
where they just sit there and silently accept locked
phones, bloated Kafkaesque pricing plans, insane roaming charges, Android phones stuffed with
crapware, and two- or even three-year locked-in
contracts. But they don’t have to. That’s what’s so infuriating.
You too could buy an unlocked phone — an unlocked
Nexus 4, which is a terrific phone, costs all of $299!
(And I have high hopes that Google’s rumored new X
Phone initiative will be even cheaper.) You too could
switch to T-Mobile’s monthly pricing plan, or Straight Talk’s, instead of signing a contract. You’d more than
make back the upfront costs of the unlocked phone in
less than a year. And if enough people did it, the
carriers would be forced to compete on quality and
improve their pricing, rather than rely on their
customers’ passive despair. The logical conclusion is that if your phone is locked,
or if you’re on a multi-year contract, then you have no
right to complain about your terrible carrier —
because you’re part of the problem. “The fault, dear
Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we
are underlings.” In fact, you’re ruining it for the rest of us. Thanks. But it’s not too late for redemption. Just repeat after
me: “I solemnly swear that I will never buy an
unlocked phone or sign a multi-year phone contract
again.” And when your current contract expires, do
just that. Maybe, just maybe, with your help, we can
finally defeat these gargantuan economic tapeworms called AT&T, Verizon, Rogers and Bell — and finally
catch up with the civilized world.

This is the penultimate episode of “In The Studio.”
The show, which features developers and
entrepreneurs working on enterprise technology, will
be ending. This week’s guest is Varun Singh, CEO
and founder of ScaleArc, a young startup that began
in India but registered as a U.S. company with designs to expand to this country once it got off the
ground in Mumbai. ScaleArc operates in the space of
database infrastructure and sits between apps and
database services — what Singh calls as SQL/
NoSQL hybrid. Whereas Amazon Web Services
would require integration and does not allow for multiple masters across multiple zones, ScaleArc
offers a more distributed approach, especially in an
age when certain sites (such as gaming portals)
cannot afford even the slightest cloud outage. In this short video, Singh and I discuss a range of
topics that would be of interest to technical founders,
especially those living outside the U.S. First, Singh
incorporated in Delaware but founded his company in
India. Technical talent is cheaper in India, and this
allows his team to have more iterative cycles, whereas in the Valley, his runway would have been
cut from 2.5 years to maybe a year. Singh then
started shuttling back and forth between India and the
Valley, and found that as long as he could give
potential customers the right to try before they
bought, the customers didn’t care where the company was located or headquartered. This is a trend I’m
seeing on the enterprise technology and SaaS space,
where foreign companies are now coming to the
Valley and actually disrupting what the Valley
considers to be upstarts.

The writing’s on the wall. Mobile is the future, and it
requires different skill than the web. Entrepreneurship
is more fetishized than ever, making standard hiring
tough. The result is days like today where Yahoo,
Twitter, Salesforce, and Box all bought startups, and
Facebook and Microsoft were reported to be in talks for major acquisitions. Big is a scary thing to be right
now. The tech giant story goes something like this. You
start as a visionary founder with a crazy dream. You
recruit your friends to give it a shot. Suddenly there’s
a breakthrough or some traction, and everyone wants
to work for you. You’re small and nimble. Employees
are trusted to make quick decisions, and the whole company can pivot on a dime to pursue a new
opportunity. But to beat competitors to the punch with the muscle
to accomplish your dreams, you have to get bigger.
Bureaucracy sets in and decisions take longer. You
have too much momentum to shift directions.
Allocating resources to chase a hunch gets tougher.
You’re no longer the startup; you’re the giant. Despite your perks and hefty paychecks, no one wants to
work for the giant. They want an adventure. The
adventure you already had. Then some punk kids come out of nowhere with the
company you would have founded if you started five
years later. You could try to build it now, but that’s
too slow and they’re already winning. Or you could try
to partner with them or someone else, but that’s
messy and unreliable. You end up with a choice: They either eat your lunch or you buy their lunch.
They disrupt you, or you acquire them. So you buy them. Then you either keep their product
running and reap the benefits while knowing they’re
not a real danger to you anymore like Facebook did
with Instagram. Or you shut down their product, fold
their team in, and have them keep your core products
relevant and evolving, like Box did today buying Adobe Acrobat-killer Crocodoc. This same story has played out over and over again
throughout the lifespan of Silicon Valley. But there are
new factors putting even more pressure on the big
guys to swallow up the little guys. Mobile Design On the web, you threw everything at the wall, and
anything that stuck even a little got left in the product.
With plenty of screen real estate and instant rollouts
of changes, you could afford to do too much. But
mobile is minimalist. People want one app to nail one
use case. It has to work in bite-size sessions. Bloat is painfully apparent. You need not just mobile designers, or even mobile-
first designers. You need mobile-best designers. The
advent of the web happened slowly, and several
generations of startups were built on it. A star product
lead from a few years ago could work magic again.
But mobile came on fast. Not necessarily in the advances in technology, but in adoption. Even just a
year ago, mobile was thought of as an option. Now
some giants like Facebook have more users on
mobile than the web. You either “get” mobile, or you’re
doomed. If you can’t build it, and you can’t hire it,
you’re pretty much forced to buy it. Yahoo didn’t buy GoPollGo to concentrate on polling. It did it because
the startup was mobile in its heart. Sexed-Up Startups Blame it on the finance sector’s collapse, the seed
funding explosion, Y Combinator, Instagram, and tech
blogs like us. Chalk it up to an entitled generation
where everyone wants to be their own boss, not a
loyal soldier. Or say it’s mobile and the cloud’s fault
for making it so easy to get a business to market. But whatever the cause, great tech talent is fragmenting.
People are willing to gamble on the chance of having
a huge impact on the world and getting rich at the
same time. The people you want to hire aren’t
applying and interviewing, they’re running their own
companies. Meanwhile for VCs, everyone wants to be the toast of
the town by being the seed investor in a hot startup.
That means anyone with a good idea, or some
combination of an okay idea and a good track record/
connections/academic pedigree can raise money and
take a swing. And why not? Best-case scenario: You change the world, grow into one of the new power-
players of Silicon Valley, and maybe sell or IPO for a
boat-load of money. Worst-case scenario: You fail
and lose (mostly) someone else’s money. You end up
with a fundamental learning experience that will build
character, maybe make you a better person, and quiet your professional wanderlust forever. Plus now, thanks to the old giants’ scrambling to stay
young, there’s a mediocre-case scenario: You sell
while you’re still small, take a cushy job at a big
company, work on something making a difference,
and learn skills while you bide your time for your “next
adventure.” A Comfy Bed To Dream In You could argue that all these acquisitions and acqui-
hires are kneecapping innovation. That they’re
preventing potential giants from ever hitting their
stride. But few people are fighting for the abstract
cause of “Innnovation” with a capital I. Thanks to disruption insurance through acquisitions, it
could be hard to truly kill Yahoo — a company many
thought was marked for death years ago. Mark
Zuckerberg disrupted Myspace in a blink of the
Internet’s eye. But if he keeps buying talented teams
and phenonema like Instagram rather than letting them mature into real threats, it could take a lot
longer to displace Facebook. Giants want to keep their dreams alive. Founders
want to chase them. Acquisitions make both less
likely to wake up to a nightmare.