Monday, January 11, 2016

The Rhyme in Generations of Disruptive Platforms

I like the very narrow definition of Platforms suggested by @chamath. It is hard to resist quoting him in full:

“I was in charge of Facebook platform. We trumpeted it out like it was some hot shit big deal. And… [Bill] Gates said something along the lines of, ‘That’s a crock of shit. This isn’t a platform. A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it. Then it’s a platform.’ If you apply that simple methodology to any company that says they’re a platform, there are only 3 platforms in the world! You know? Windows is a quasi-platform, decaying, but still, iOS is platform, and Android is platform… these [other services] aren’t “platforms”, these are APIs, these are developer tools, which is good, and it’s a bridge to something, but it’s not a platform, so let’s stop calling it a platform, let’s call it what it is, which is a bunch of endpoints.”

I would only add that besides Windows, or rather “Wintel”, which is a Platform for the “PC”, Lintel (or Linux plus Intel) is also a Platform – albeit one that powered the server side, and which isn’t dominated by a single Company. In fact, this commodity hardware Platform built with Linux and other open source software (from LAMP to Hadoop) powered the rise of all the companies offering Cloud services, whether they built their own data centers like Google and Facebook, or outsourced them to AWS or Google’s App Engine.

Like @chamath, Benedict Evans, who discusses the move from a PC ecosystem to a Mobile ecosystem, didn’t see the need to separate out Lintel from Wintel either, and he lumps them together as the “PC.”  That may make sense from a hardware ecosystem perspective, but thinking of Wintel and Lintel as two different Platforms can help us listen better to the rhyme of history  (for, as Mark Twain has indicated, history may not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.)

And with this perspective, as illustrated in the table below, there does seem to be a certain rhyme in the rise of new Platforms. It is most striking that new platforms don’t seem to disrupt the previous generation Platform. Quite the opposite in fact: they depend heavily on the previous generation, without which, they could not thrive. But they do tend to disrupt or replace the generation before last (in an “alternate rhyme scheme”, ABAB).

For example, Cloud services would not be possible without the dominance of the Wintel PC and the browser, but the Cloud didn’t replace the PC – it replaced proprietary server stacks (eg mainframes) and disrupted their business model.  Similarly, the current Mobile ecosystem relies heavily on the Cloud and its services (forming the foundation of the app ecosystem). But as Ben Evans points out, today, “Mobile” is effectively on its way to replace the PC. Again, it is not replacing the preceding generation of Platform, but the penultimate one.

Hardware Emblematic Company Client / Server Dis / Aggregators Disrupts /
Main frames / Minicomputers Proprietary IBM /
Server N/A Typewriters etc. etc.
PC (Wintel) PC Microsoft /
Client Dis-aggregator Terminals etc. etc.
Cloud (Lintel) PC Google Server Both Minicomputers/ Main frames
Mobile Mobile Apple (IOS) /
Client Aggregator PC (Wintel)
The Next New Platform Mobile? ? ? Server? Both? Cloud?

In the table above, I have also indicated a Chirstensenian accordion of aggregation and disaggregation performed by each generation of Platform. But I would note that Cloud services are both aggregators and disaggregators. They are built on an aggregated (or integrated) stack of software and hardware to deliver their services. Yet, each of those services can also be seen as a specific disaggregated service offering a sliver of functionality “as a Service.”

It is also striking that, seen this way, Platform generations swing back and forth between client side and server side dominance, like a metronome.

So if we let this music play a little longer, we could surmise that the next great Platform will emerge on the server side, based on an integrated Mobile hardware stack that offers slivers of disaggregated services which will disrupt the Cloud!

Simple enough!

This wouldn’t mean that this Mobile hardware stack will just be used in Google’s data centres to do the same thing Google’s servers are doing now — that may happen, but that won’t constitute a new Platform. New Platforms inevitably involve new services, use-cases, and value propositions. Arguably, the same way Google’s servers disrupted mainframes by starting out as less serious “toys” delivering slightly different value propositions, this new Platform will not substitute Cloud services directly, at least to begin with.

Yet if we indulge in the outrageous results of such an interpolation, we could well predict that these little devices will eventually replace Cloud Services as we know them today.

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(cross posted on medium)

Monday, April 14, 2014

JLoS for Objective-C

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting back into coding, starting with App Engine  and then javascript, and onto phonegap and then some native app code. The one thing that I’ve always felt very uncomfortable with is sql and all formal data structures (such as "core data” in x-code.)
So a couple of years ago, I came up with a very simple javascript object I called “JLoS” - which stands for JSON for Local Storage. It’s just a few lines of code, but I found it very useful for phonegap and web development. Basically, it’s just a json object, which you initialise with a file name and save it to local storage…(Posted originally on pastebin  and more recently on github
It’s just so much easier to work with JSON than formal data structures, whether on the server side (ie MongoDB) or locally in javascript or native apps. I have no idea what other people do to manage simple data structures, specially on a browser based app where the options seem to be hovering in no man’s land.
There is less reason to use jlos on native apps, but if you are downloading and uploading json in any case, why would you want to start converting it to fancy Core Data structures? 
So last weekend, I created JLoS for objective c… and put it on github
Not that any one would notice ;), but the concept is similar to JLoS for javascript, except that it is just an “nsdictionary” saved to file... Or you can think of it as and extended and extensible NSUserDefaults. It is also similar to “Core Data” which, to my surprise has some of the quirks of jlos. (eg Since you can create multiple instances of the object from the same file, you have to make sure you manage reading, saving, and refreshing its content and to coordinate updates among the different instances.)
In some places, the formalism of core data obviously serves well, but often you just want to store loose data structures in files and that’s what JLoS does… and objective c is very good to at transforming between json and nsdictionary so it's easily exportable too.
Hopefully some people will find it useful.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The “App Store” of Text

A couple of weeks ago, Albert recommended “The Information” on his blog. 5 clicks, and a few seconds later, I was already reading the book on my phone. (And once I had finished the free sample chapter, it took me only two more clicks to purchase the book and continue reading!!)
5 clicks and I had the book! This wasn’t the first kindle book I had read, nor the first review I clicked on, but I was suddenly struck at how easy Amazon had made it to buy and read books. And it made me think of a few of the many reasons why the iphone / ipod touch / ipad app store has been so successful:
1. Apple made it super easy to buy apps (and for developers to sell them.)
2. Apps were relatively cheap. (I remember when my son wanted to buy the FIFA Soccer game on the PSP a few years ago, it cost CHF50+, while the ipod touch app was only a few bucks.)
Before the apple app store, so called "apps" were stuck between being either free on the internet or too expensive on game consoles. The app store created that middle ground, where apps could be bought (ie they were not always free) but they were still relatively cheap, and they were all only a couple of click away. Cheap and Easy: That expanded the market tremendously and the rest is history.
It strikes me that news content has also been stuck between “free” and “too expensive” for a long time now. And content providers have only been able to play with the price lever, because it is hard for any one content provider to make it easy enough to buy text content.
Sometimes I come across a link to interesting content behind pay walls - an article in a magazine or newspaper, or an in-depth analysis on a blog, or even a recommended academic paper. I would like to read these, and I would be willing to pay something for that content. But to access the text, I am forced to go through the pain of registering on a web site, or paying for a subscription, all of which is way too painful. Imagine how successful the app store would have been if you were forced to buy a subscription to multiple apps every time you thought of downloading one $0.99 app! The same goes with "text" content. I would be willing to pay for it, but I would be willing to invest only so much time, clicks and money to access each article. I don't want to subscribe or even register to read an article I just found –it’s just too difficult, and so I move on to other free content on the web.
But if I was only a couple of clicks away from those texts, I would certainly be far more tempted to pay for the access.
This must be a huge opportunity for Amazon - to sell individual articles by all major publications and many a blog. I can’t believe that my only options on Amazon kindle today are to buy full subscriptions or a full magazine. What nonsense! When I reach the "free summary" web-page of a pay-wall article, I want a “read this on Kindle” button, offering me to download the article in a few seconds and only a couple of clicks, for say $0.09 cents for a news article or a few bucks for research. But I don't want to enter credit card details or even sign in using Google or Facebook or what have you. I am only willing to spend a couple of clicks of time.
Text content providers (newspapers, magazines, blogs etc) have been struggling for so long to find the right balance between providing free link-able content, and being paid for their good work. But they are still stuck between free and too-expensive. And they have not yet adapted to the distributed world of online content, where people don't necessarily want to be forced to "subscribe", whatever the price. It's not easy to subscribe!
Someone has to experiment with an App Store for text, making individual articles and research cheap and easy to access. And Amazon is probably the one big company in an ideal position to do just that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What's next now?

Back in 2007, before the iphone had even launched, when Brad Burnham asked ‘What’s Next?’, I pointed to Christensen and said:

“Christensen paints a picture of various elements of a ‘stack’ disintegrating and re-integrating (ie re-aggregating) over time with value moving back and forth between those elements (thus his “law of conservation of attractive profits” referring to adjacent elements of the stack going through cycles of commoditization.) … An obvious example: the PC disintegrated the computing-device stack and pushed value to some of the individual elements of the stack – benefiting Intel and Microsoft among others. More recently, the ipod (and to some extent the mac) has reintegrated the stack arguably shifting value back to the ‘hardware’ or ‘device’ as an aggregated whole.”

Four years on, with the success of the iphone and the Kindle, and now, Google’s decision to buy Motorola Mobility, the “integration” cycle seems to be nearly complete.

"Nearly": First off, it seems unlikely that Google will become an integrated player like Apple is today. My bet would be that Google integrates not only Motorola’s patent portfolio but also much of their technology expertise and talent to create reference architectures designs and may be key hardware for their partners like Samsung. But once Google integrates the key engineering teams, it can only make sense for them to sell the Motorola brand, distribution and a hollowed-out hardware business to a company like HP. Ironically, this Googorola may begin to look more like the wintel of the 1990’s (without the Motorola brand.)

So what’s next then? What is the next big strategic shift (say, 3-4 years from now), which could put us back on a dis-integration cycle?

Purely theoretically, it seems like that value could shift to the network – ie the mobile operators. But that seems so unimaginable at this point, that I will leave it there.

What else, besides Microsoft ( ;-) ), could save us from the constraints of a Google / Apple duopoly, and jump-start dis-integration? The only things I could imagine are (1) HTML 5, and (2) personal information integrators.

1. HTML 5 could finally render the os obsolete… finally(!) That’s what everyone hoped and/or feared from the early days of Netscape, and ironically, it could make a Firefox the new king maker (again.) HTML 5, built on the advanced hardware platforms of a couple of years from now could remove much of the advantages of integrated platforms like Apple and Googorola. Evolving standards would create a seamless experience even in a dis-integrated world. The OS wouldn’t matter to the experience, and nor would the hardware. And the equivalent to the App Store or Android Market would be distributed, like the web is today, but with room for giant market makers like Amazon.

2. Be it Facebook, Google+, or even iCloud or a Dropbox, or rather I hope, a still to be formed startup, one or more companies may be able to build on top of the existing stack and create value by solving one of the other much sought-after holy grails of the internet – to be a repository and manager of your information and interactions across devices, clouds and web services. Such an animal will free us from increasing constraints imposed by the integrated stack duopoly, and shift value creation away from the existing stacks to itself… One can only hope that the winning solution here will be an open-source / open-data P2P platform.

That’s what the world is looking like to me.

(If I turn out to be way off, I will need to blog more often to push this post down beyond page 1 and into oblivion.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Visionary Perseverance vs Stubborn Stupidity

A few days ago, I heard a talk by RE-Power’s CFO. He took us through the company’s quite incredible journey. In early 2005, the company was a cash strapped sub ~€70m market-cap company, and no investor was willing to put any money in it. But by 2008, the stock price had gone up ten fold and the company was worth a couple of billion euros.
One of the conclusions of the speech was that if you believe in what you are doing, you should persevere, and you will be successful.
One hears this conclusion quite often in the retelling of success stories. But the problem is that when you hear about stories of failure - and normally such stories do not make it to a key note address – it is told by the investors who were smart enough not to invest. “Every one told the CEO it was a stupid idea, and he just went on wasting his time on it. It was clear it was going to fail.”
It seems that the line separating “stubborn stupidity” from “visionary perseverance” can only be drawn in retrospect.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Case for CATs

I have been working on this paper in bits and pieces since the summer. It is a position paper advocating a "Carbon Added Tax" on embodied emissions.

This is the intro:
A Carbon Added Tax (CAT) is like a sales tax on the carbon emitted to produce the goods and services we consume. From the CAT perspective, when you buy say, a computer, you are responsible for the carbon emitted in producing its mother board and the hard disk and each subcomponent in the computer, as well as that emitted from the fuel burnt by ships and trucks transporting it, and to power the electricity in the shop selling it. A CAT levies a tax on the consumer for all this “embodied” carbon, at the point of sale.

This paper argues that a CAT represents a better way to affect global carbon emissions, because it leverages the global nature of the world economy to cut through geographic and legislative boundaries. The paper also addresses the major arguments against the CAT – the assumed difficulty of measuring embodied carbon and administering the tax. It discusses the latest developments in this area, and proposes structural incentives to overcome those obstacles.
And here is what's in it:
The Moral Imperative: Consumer vs Producer Responsibility
The Quantitative Impact of the Consumer Responsibility Perspective
The Economics: A Global Public Good
Structural Problems with the Producer Responsibility Paradigm
The CAT in Practice
Accounting View: Counting Carbon for CATs
A Philosophical Note: Archimedes’ Lever
A Time to CAT?


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Macbook Environmental Report

Kudos to Apple for putting out an environmental report on their new Macbooks (via earth2tech).

Of course, I will have to point out that Apple estimates its embodied emissions (ie emissions from production and transport) to be 60% of the total lifecycle emissions of the product, versus 39% for customer use. Not to repeat myself too often, but why is it every one seems to be focusing on the 39% portion?