Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Demise & Repair Of A Kindle 3

Through a series of unfortunate events my 3G Kindle suffered an untimely demise this past weekend. Without going into too much detail lets just say that sitting on a Kindle is not recommended. One other piece of advice is to invest in a case and use it. I'd gotten in the habit of carrying mine around "naked" as it was more convenient.Until I sat on it any way.

After an hour of searching on line it became clear that replacement displays are not easy to come by. I did find one place that would sell the display for $80 which wouldn't have been horrible given the $190 price tag of the 3G Kindle but they also insisted on doing the repair themselves and wanted another $80 for that. I didn't bother to find out if postage both ways was included.

The Wireless only Kindle is $140, so I decided to buy one hoping that I could use it to repair the broken one. I'll get into some more detail on that in a moment but first a picture.

Broken display on the left, new display on the right

I'd purchased the white Kindle 3 originally. The wireless unit is graphite as I prefer the way it looks.

In the picture above you can see the back sides of the screens for both my original white Kindle and the new graphite one. It's easy to see the cracks on the old Kindle display. They branch out from the right hand side. That isn't a picture in the graphite screen BTW, it's just the reflection of our dining room lights. One thing to note is that the displays appear to be glued in. Given how fragile they are I don't recommend trying to remove one.

FYI, You can click on any of the pictures in this entry to get a larger version.

My original idea was to swap the SIM card and 3G modem from the old Kindle to the newone. I could tell that the logic board on my original Kindle was fine as the lower left portion of the display still kind of worked but I wasn't sure if the logic board was the same between the 3G and wireless Kindles and nothing I could find on line answered that question. It turns out that they are different as the following picture shows.

3G on the left, Wireless only on the right

If you look in the upper right corner you can see what I'm talking about. The 3G Kindle; which is on the left has a cellular modem that plugs into a mini PCI-E slot. The wireless only version doesn't have the slot or the SIM card which is just below the cellular modem.

I'd taken apart the broken Kindle before ordering the new one so I knew what it looked like inside.  I wasn't totally surprised to find out that this wasn't going to be possible to just swap the SIM and modem so I went with my backup plan which was to swap the guts of my old Kindle into the new case. I did a little bit of mixing of parts in the process. I ended up keeping the white keyboard for the repaired unit.

Below you can see the final product on the right with the leftover parts on the left.

Mirror Images, Kind of

The "new" unit is working perfectly with my old logic board and keyboard. It's not hard to see the damage to the display on the left in this view. The E-Ink screen didn't show any signs of damage right after I sat on it. It was when I powered it up that the problem became obvious.

The only serious pain in this process was sitting on my Kindle and the expense of the new one. Getting to pull both the old and the new unit apart, find out what was inside and put everything back together again didn't make up for that but it was a bit of a consolation and not difficult. You can almost pry apart the Kindle 3 with your fingernails and a small screw driver makes it easy. After that it's just a matter of removing a bunch of small screws.

This probably invalidated my warranty. I'm OK with that.  I have a working Kindle along with a spare logic board, battery, keyboard and case. That is a big improvement over what I had prior to the purchase of the second unit.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Technology I'd Like To See (Short Take)

Touch pads have been around for awhile now. So have touch screens. The touch pad on my laptop is four and a quarter inches by two point five inches. This is actually larger than the screen on my Droid X phone. That in combination with a computer concept I saw at the Commodore computers web site got me to thinking, would there be any advantage to building laptops with touch screens rather than touch pads?

The above image shows the Commodore concept. The placement on the right wouldn't work for a laptop but the touch screen could just as easily be rotated ninety degrees to the right and moved below the keyboard where a touch pad would be.

A touch screen could be totally programmable. It could operate as a numeric keypad, a custom controller, a low end tablet, etc. Back-lit LCD's are responsible for a large percentage of the battery drain on laptops. The touch pad display could operate as a lower power alternative for light duty use when battery life is at a premium. Small screens on smartphones are a limitation but a lot of useful work gets done on them.

I'm not claiming that this is a good or even viable idea. I do think it's an interesting one though and it's not a bad platform to think about how a technology could lead to other products or how it might tie in with a larger strategy. For instance what if Apple built a laptop where the touch pad was an iPhone? There is a trend towards smart phones being people's primary computing devices. Using the smart phone as the touch pad on a laptop like keyboard/mouse combo would make for a nice and potentially elegant integration since there are just times when a full sized keyboard and display are not optional.
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Technology & Product Lifespans (Oculis Labs, Apple, Cisco, Flip)

Image representing Oculis Labs as depicted in ...
In my BLOG entry last week I talked a bit about what I called "short term gap technologies". The concept being that there are technologies that come along with very short shelf lives. The primary example cited was the Flip video cameras due to the incorporation of video recording into smart phones and still cameras. I also mentioned that it would be great to be able to identify these short lifespan technologies as doing so would almost certainly lead to business opportunities.

This is a really non trivial task. Cisco has made a lot of acquisitions over the years and they’ve generally done very well. Spending around half a billion dollars on Flip isn’t going to go down as one of their better decisions. In their defense, they likely acquired some amount of intellectual property that will help offset that cost. I tend to doubt they’ll break even though.

So if a company as experienced and tech savvy as Cisco can fail to see the pitfalls of purchasing Flip, you know it’s not easy.

The primary inflection point in the case of the Flips eventual demise was the advent of the smart phone as envisioned by Apple. I know smart phones existed prior to Apple entering the market but as has been the case with MP3 players and Tablets Apple managed to clarify and popularize the smart phone market by creating the original iPhone.

The Flip wasn’t the only device to be impacted by the development of smart phones. Personal GPS’s have been under increasing pressure the past few years, particularly since Google introduced their free navigation software.

This brings up a potentially interesting avenue of exploration. If you can’t easily determine what technologies/markets have a short viable life in isolation then perhaps you can look at emerging technologies and try to figure out how they might be used to create new products. One example of a company doing this is Oculis Labs. In the interest of full disclosure, Oculis Founder and CEO Bill Anderson was the head guy of the division I worked for in a technology company around 2000. There were a couple of layers of management between us and I don’t think we exchanged more than a couple of dozen words the whole time I worked for him. We haven’t talked since.

Oculis aims to secure the last two feet of the Internet. By this they mean the space between where you’re sitting and the screen. Here’s a description of one of their products

PrivateEye™ is active display security software that responds conveniently and automatically to a user. PrivateEye presents a normal clear screen when the user is present and looking at the display, but when the user’s attention moves away from the display the software immediately blurs the screen. Similarly, if PrivateEye detects an eavesdropper it can automatically blur the screen. The solution also includes a facial recognition engine. PrivateEye requires only a standard webcam.

Notice that last sentence? Web cameras are essentially ubiquitous these days. Oculis apparently saw this emerging trend and asked a very important question. “Is there an opportunity there?” The answer appears to be yes.

Of course if Oculis is successful they’ll spawn imitators. Being (apparently) first to market and generating intellectual property does give them a leg up though. Companies like Cisco, Google and Microsoft have been known to pay good money for these kinds of companies and that isn’t a bad outcome if it comes to pass.

It’s entirely possible that computer companies such as Apple and Dell might start incorporating the functionality of the PrivateEye software into their offerings. If this happens then the PrivateEye product would quickly cease to be viable and thus become a short term gap technology.

This brings up an important point, short term gap technologies don’t always vanish because they are supplanted by something else. Sometimes they lose viability because they are incorporated into some other product/technology and become ubiquitous.

Before I wrap up, a few words about Cisco & Flip. Some people have pointed out that Flip was still selling well and that the end of the line was likely years away since not everyone has a smart phone. There has also been speculation that the reason Cisco killed Flip rather than selling is to a consumer electronics company is that they want to incorporate some of the Flips technology into their video conferencing offerings.

Those assertions may have some credibility but I lean towards the theory that Cisco realized they were in a lot of trouble and that they needed to get focused back on their core business quickly. Taking the time and effort to sell Flip was going to take up valuable resources that needed to be engaged elsewhere. If you were in charge of Cisco and you suddenly came to the realization that you might be approaching a tipping point where the company would see significant losses in market share if drastic changes weren't made what would you do?

Image via CrunchBase
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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Some Thoughts On Management (Short Take)

The image explains in an overall view the way ...
When most of us hear the word “manage” we tend to think of what is essentially a command and control approach. Command and control is a very autocratic management method in which the manager gives frequent and specific instructions to employees and the employees carry them out. It’s important to keep in mind that command and control  dates from a time when most employees were unskilled and the tasks being done where relatively simple and repetitive. Clearly that is not the environment that skilled professionals operate in.

There used to be a theory in management circles that a good manager didn’t need to know anything about a particular discipline to manage effectively. Thankfully that theory seems to have fallen out of favor. To be an effective manager of skilled professionals you need to have a good understanding of the technology or discipline that is at the core of the people you are managing. I’m not saying you need to have the same level of in depth knowledge that the people in your group have about their respective areas of responsibility; that just isn't feasible. You should however be able to ask intelligent questions and understand the answers. You should also be able act as an effective sounding board if somebody is looking for input on an idea or project they are working on.

Treat people with respect. Be honest, sensitive and timely in giving feedback. People are not mind readers. They can’t be expected to do something if they don’t know that it needs to be done. When dealing with skilled professionals it helps to also be able to tell them WHY it needs to be done.

When you talk to people, listen carefully and attentively to what is being said and avoid canned responses.

Be real, but be professional. We all get angry or frustrated at times but it’s seldom if ever appropriate to vent at work or in front of the people who work for you.

Give credit where credit is due. Always be careful to attribute work you are presenting to the individual(s) who did it. I’ve seen managers lose good people because they didn’t do this.

Be flexible, delegate as much as is feasible. Avoid the command and control management style!

Image via Wikipedia
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Cisco, Flip & Gap Technologies

BERLIN - SEPTEMBER 04:  Visitors look at minia...
Cisco's recent announcement that they are discontinuing their Flip line along with other less well known products in the same general space isn’t surprising in retrospect. I have two reasons for saying this.

First of all Cisco has been receiving steadily increasing criticism from both their hard core supporters on the technology side as well as their shareholders. The gist of that criticism has been that Cisco has lost sight of their core enterprise networking business. Recent quarterly financial results lend credence to these assertions.

Cisco did not start out life as a consumer products company and trying to diversify into that space has not gone well for them. Many of their enterprise network product lines are starting to show their age and new and existing competitors are putting increasing pressure on Cisco’s bottom line. This is particularly true in the network switch space where established companies such as HP are making significant inroads and newcomers such as Aruba are bringing out intriguing products at attractive price points.

The second reason is that it looks like the Flip has turned out to be what I refer to as a short term gap technology. All technologies have what I’ll refer to as a half-life. This is the time period between when they are invented and when they start to be replaced by something new/different. Some technologies have half-lives that are measured in decades or even centuries while others are measured in years or months. Generally speaking the more specific a technology is the shorter its half-life. So for instance the half-life of the CRT based television was around fifty years while the half-life of the television in general is likely to be indefinite.

As technologies work their way through their natural lifespan they almost always start out as expensive niche products and then work their way steadily down in terms of cost and up in terms of units shipped and general acceptance. At some point a significant innovation takes place that causes a particular technology to start to be marginalized. This process can happen very rapidly as in the case Facebook versus MySpace, but the transition period is generally longer and more gradual. It took a decade plus for high definition TV’s to become standard for example.

The original Flip video recorder came out in 2006 at a time when high definition video was just starting to gain traction. Its ability to record decent quality 720p digital video and small size captured a lot of people’s attention and translated into healthy sales. Cisco acquired the company that makes the Flip in 2009.

Over the past couple of years smart phones have started to come with built in 720p video recording as a standard feature. This has meant a steadily shrinking potential market as smart phones have increased their share of the cell phone pie and while it is the case that the Flip video recorders offer additional features, Cisco apparently views the level of differentiation as being too small to keep the device viable at the current size and price points.

Being able to instantly upload video to YouTube from a smart phone is a trick that the Flip video recorders would be incapable of duplicating without significant additional costs. If Cisco had gone that route they would have essentially been creating their own cell phone.

Video recording is also a standard feature in most digital photo cameras now as well.

From a business perspective, other than brand loyalty Flip really didn’t have a lot going for them. Their technology wasn’t difficult to imitate and so larger and better established companies did. In addition, the introduction of the iPhone and Android based smart phones spurred a rapid evolution of mobile platforms that made it relatively simple to duplicate much of the Flip's functionality didn’t help either.

In Cisco’s defense, short timeline gap technologies aren’t easy to spot when they are young even if their rapid demise seems obvious in retrospect. If you’re smart/lucky enough to identify a short term gap technology you’ve also identified a potentially lucrative business opportunity.

Of course coming up with an alternative to any established product/technology is a potentially lucrative business opportunity.

Image by Getty Images via @daylife
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Monday, April 11, 2011

Why Fragmentation Doesn't Matter (Much)

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I've mentioned fragmentation several times in this BLOG. The idea behind fragmentation is that it becomes increasingly difficult to develop for a particular platform as the number of variants increase. When there is one version of a platform you only need to make your code work properly on it, say for instance the original iPhone when it first came out. As each successive iteration and variation on a theme is added there are more and more variables that need to be test for and dealt with. Processor speeds steadily ramp up as does memory and graphics capabilities. Problems in the graphics area can be somewhat mitigated by maintaining a consistent aspect ratio.

The real problem though is that fragmentation is much less important than the fact that from an application developers perspective platforms matter less and less. What matters is getting your application in front of as many customers as possible as frequently as possible and increasingly that means supporting a wide variety of underlying operating systems and platforms. Apple has been moving in the direction of supplying a more unified user experience across their MacOS and iOS products for a while now and there are signs that Microsoft is moving in the same direction. In the future companies are going to need to be able to port their applications to many different platforms quickly if they want to maximize their odds of success in a world where customers are going to expect a consistent experience across a large number of very dissimilar underlying platforms.

Java, HTML 5 & Flash all offer potential solutions to this problem. Each technology offers a standard platform that can run the same "binary" across a wide range of platforms. I'm not an applications developer so I'm not going to try to pretend to have an in depth knowledge of any of these platforms. What I do know however is that in the case of mobile computing platforms battery life is important. While platform independent solutions provide the advantage of minimal or no porting between platforms they do have a downside. There is essentially an additional layer of software between the application and the underlying hardware. This extra layer comes at a significant cost in terms of performance and battery life. This is in part why Apple has been so strenuous in their resistance to having flash on iOS based devices. Apple has very strong feelings about managing the customer experience and discouraging developers from using API's that are inefficient and may compromise the visual look and feel of their user interface is very much in line with that desire. Whether it's legal or not is a different question.

As hardware companies find ways to wring additional performance out of components, including batteries this will be less of an issue. There will likely still be applications that need significant porting between platforms to get reasonable performance but I suspect they will be few and far between.

One final thought for this entry. In the second decade of the 21st century there isn't just one platform. There are many. And I'm not talking about iOS or Android here, I'm talking about Facebook, Twitter, NetfFlix, Google and similar big players that provide functionality that a large segment of the Internet community find useful and desire to be ubiquitous. Applications have always been an important part of a platforms success. Word Processing and spreadsheet applications sold millions of DOS and later Microsoft Windows based PC's. Desktop publishing and other multimedia applications have sold a lot of Mac's over the years. The difference today is that many of the applications driving growth are essentially cloud based and hardware/OS independent. Where the hardware and OS used to be foundational they are now just gateways into the places where the real action is.

All of which explains why I don't see fragmentations as a big deal, at least in the sense most people use that word.

Image via Wikipedia
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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Motorola/Apple/Amazon/Intel/Mobile Devices

Worldwide iPhone sales by quarter. Sales volum...
I still love my Motorola Droid X even though it does occasionally get into a state where I need to pull out the battery to recover. The OS and the applications just keep getting better and better.  There apparently will be a second generation of the Droid X, though details on the specifications are still sketchy. A more capable processor and better graphics seem likely though the current generation platform is no slouch on either count. We'll have to wait and see. I don't ever see myself wanting an iPhone. I've used both and for me the X is the superior solution.

This isn't to imply that iOS related devices don't have a place in my life. My wife and I own an iMac and various iPod's and iPod touch's. We're also currently awaiting the arrival of a base model iPad 2. I still can't justify the cost (both up front and ongoing) of the 3G based iPad's but with the WiFi hot spot capability of my Droid X it's easy to make the decision to forgo that capability in the iPad. We love our Kindle's but they just don't fill the same niche as the iPad.

There isn't a lot of news in the wild about what the next generation Kindle is going to look like. A color screen and touch capability would be great. Color seems doable given the availability of color EInk displays but the touch screen may be unlikely as Apple is apparently using a substantial part of the manufacturing capacity in this area and has used their big pile of cash to assure their supply by paying in advance. This has left other companies struggling to find supply to fill their own needs. Amazon would likely be wise to avoid going down that path right now.

On the Android front there has been a lot of talk recently about fragmentation and Google's attempts to discourage their partners from layering too much "value added" software on top of the base Android OS. As I've noted before, while fragmentation is certainly more of an issue for Android it is also present and growing in the iOS space. With each new device and generation that Apple introduces this problem grows. Developers no longer have the luxury of only keeping in mind the capabilities of one or two mobile devices. As I've noted before, developers for Windows PC's have had to deal with this for decades now so it isn't like new ground is being broken. Slightly complicating things is the fact that it's becoming increasingly clear that any company that wants to maximize their revenues in the mobile space is going to have to support both iOS and Android. I'm not trying to imply that the problems in this space are trivial, but the potential profits are substantial and expertise and tools are already being developed. I don't think we'll be hearing nearly as many complaints a couple of years from now.

There have been rumors that Motorola is amassing a dream team to create their own mobile OS as they aren't happy with the limited ability to differentiate themselves based on Android. While this isn't a surprising development it seems like a very risky one to me. The cost of creating a new platform is not insubstantial and with multiple well established players I don't like their chances unless they are going to try for some sort of middle ground where they leverage existing low cost technologies. Android at its heart is Linux and much of its code is freely available. There is nothing stopping Motorola from creating their own Linux based mobile platform. If they don't deviate too far from Android and stick with ARM based processors porting would be relatively simple which would improve their chances of ending up with a viable application pool.

At this point it seems fairly clear that ARM based processors are going to be at the core of a majority of mobile computing devices for the foreseeable future. This will somewhat ease porting across platforms that choose not to buck this trend. It does mean however that Intel is largely being left out in the cold. PC's and servers are not going away but they certainly seem likely to shrink in terms of relative importance. Intel is a large and diverse company of course but if I were a shareholder I couldn't help but be a little worried about how things are going. It may be unthinkable today but I can see a time when Intel licenses the ARM architecture and puts their own spin on it. Intel could certainly bring out a highly competitive product quickly from a specification perspective and with their ownership of and expertise in the fabrication of processors they could also do it at a highly competitive price. Their vertical integration could be a big win for them. They'll need a competitive mobile GPU to make this approach viable. A partnership with NVidia while unthinkable might be smart for both companies.

Image via Wikipedia
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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Making A Difference (Apple, Wal-Mart)

Think Different 67/365
One of the things they teach you in business school is the importance of differentiation. How is your business going to distinguish itself from the competition? There are many different approaches that can be taken. You can differentiate based on cost like Wal-Mart. You can differentiate based on experience like Apple. You can differentiate based on quality like Rolls Royce, etc. It's important to know what your key differentiator is early and stay focused on it because this choice has significant implications on all aspects of your business. 

For instance, on the operational side of things if you are competing on cost you'll need to be obsessive about efficiency. This is the path Wal-Mart took. They are always looking to get a few extra pennies out of their vendors and find ways to save money. They developed their hub and spoke distribution model and invested heavily in technology early on because these innovations and others allowed them to deliver the appropriate products to their stores more quickly and at a lower cost. These operational efficiencies lowered their costs which in turn allowed them to maintain their desired margins while lowering the prices their customers paid.

It's important to keep in mind that you can't be everything to everybody. You can't be cheap and luxurious. You might appeal to the bargain hunter but people looking for luxury will almost universally ignore you even if your product does somehow manage to pull off being both inexpensive and of high quality.

Apple has been doing a great job of selling products based on creating a lifestyle for a long time now. They are very good and deemphasizing the technology that underlies their products and keeping the experience/functionality front and center. When the iPad 2 came out it was pretty much impossible to find the technical specs until members of the blogosphere got their hands on one and pulled it apart. Apple doesn't want you to know what is inside and they aren't going to tell you. This drives hard core geeks a little crazy but at the end of the day what matters in the case of Apple is the quality of the experience and for the vast majority of people the technical specifications do little or nothing to enhance that. In fact they can do the opposite. The iPad 2 is going to have a twelve month life span if past product release cycles by Apple are any indication. Right now the technical specifications of the iPad 2 are fairly impressive but in the fast moving world of consumer electronics the odds are they won't be six or nine months from now. By not touting the technical specifications of the iPad 2 Apple has framed the debate on what a tablet is supposed to be in a way that is very favorable to them while making it more difficult for their competition to gain traction. This is what good marketing is supposed to do.

Knowing what you want to sell is only part of the equation. Arguably it is less important than knowing who you want to sell to and what kind of approach is most likely to appeal to your target audience while distancing you from your competitors.

Image by bump via Flickr

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