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Archive for November, 2011

Wait Before Buying a Kindle Fire: WiFi Problems

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 24, 2011

Got my Kindle Fire yesterday, eagerly anticipating a morning of shiny new object joy followed by a nice Thanksgiving dinner.  No joy.  My Kindle Fire will not connect to WiFi and it can’t do much of anything without it.

This is rapidly becoming a known problem.  The Amazon support boards are filled with people reporting the issue and Techcrunch also ran an article.

Lots of placebos are being discussed on the support boards and I tried all of them with no success.  They range from the usual Customer Service we-don’t-know-what’s-really-going-on-but-we-need-to-get-you-off-the-phone answers like reboot, retype your password, yada, yada, to voodoo around whether it supports all the different WiFi protocols (some say “B” is the culprit and if you set the router to G or N you’re fine) and so on and so forth.  There is an update, 6.1, that some claims fixes it.  I have to go scare up the right serial cable to try that, but many report it didn’t help so I haven’t been in a big hurry.

One comment on the Tech Support board tells the story:

“Amazon, you know you have a problem, and you know you’re not going to announce it until after Black Friday’s sales have ended, but you had sure better have an easy fix for it or you’ll be facing millions of returns.”

I attempted to get Tech Support via email, but their response was simply a note that said sorry, can’t help unless you call in.  Not what you’d expect to hear from the would-be premier Cloud company Amazon!

I would’ve expected that with as many as are reporting the trouble, they would have a coordinated response to keep the situation under control and hopefully get it fixed.

BTW, if you choose to ignore the initial setup and just dive in, the overall UI is pretty confusing.  It keeps asking to connect on most anything you do, you click the connect, and nothing happens.  There’s no feedback about whether it connected or not, but in my case it did not.

The device looks like a nice form factor, and I wanted some kind of Android device in the house amid our sea of iOS devices.  So far, not impressed.  I will eventually make that support call, probably tomorrow so as not to spoil Thanksgiving Day, but unless it is actually helpful, I’ll be returning the Kindle.

Posted in saas | 6 Comments »

How Do You Market Cheap Socially?

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 23, 2011

Sameer Patel has an interesting post that got me to thinking:  How do you market cheap socially?

What got Sameer to post was the following (in his words):

Social Times reports that the way to get more “Likes” on Facebook is to offer coupons to satiate the what’s-in-it-for-me hunger of an increasingly discriminating social networker.

This might well be that moment in social media marketing history when we look back and say – “what were we thinking??”

Here’s my problem with that–what do you do if what you sell and market is “cheap?”

Michael Porter’s musings on competitive strategy suggests there are 3 winning market strategies:

1.  You can build the best.

2.  You can be the low-cost provider.

3.  You can focus on some under served niche that the other two are ignoring.

There are a lot of companies in this world who adopt #2–what they’re selling is “cheap”.  Come buy from us, because we’ll give you the best price.  The whole notion of brand tends to facilitate cheap, except where the brands go out of their way to attack cheap sellers, the way Rolex or Louis Vuitton would.  Once you become fixated on a brand that satisfies #1 (i.e. you view it as the best), all that’s left is to find the cheapest source of #1.  The businesses that act as middlemen, retailers that sell the brands, often fall back on #2 to market themselves.  Yes, you can buy that Canon DSLR a lot of places, but ours is cheaper.

If you think about it, the Internet is ideally suited to convey the messaging of #2 because #2 is a search game.  Amazon facilitates that search for cheap, eBay facilitates it, Craigslist is there, and certainly any search engine spends a great deal of time processing searches that boil down to trying to find the best price on something.  I do it myself all the time and so do you.

Enter Social networks like Facebook.  We’re told that it is important for us to “engage” with our customers and to “join the conversation” with them.  Yet, what engagement or conversation is needed in the quest for cheap?  Not much really.  In fact, it somewhat detracts from the experience because we’re suspicious that if we stop to listen for too long, we might accidentally absorb the sales pitch and pay too much for some article we’ve vowed to get the best possible price on.

So what’s a poor purveyor of parsimony (sorry, couldn’t resist) to do in order to leverage Facebook and the legion of other Social channels?

Why it seems pretty obvious.  If you’re selling cheap, you’ve got to sell it everywhere.  Why not offer coupons for “Likes” if you are running that sort of company?  You’re actually not marketing your marketing as Sameer says.  Rather, you’re offering one of the many tricks of your trade, in this case a coupon, to convince your would-be followers that you are indeed the bona fide cheapest source of the product they seek.  And even if it isn’t the product they seek, it is still a good deal, and a consumer looking for cheap is probably interested in more cheap they didn’t even know they needed.  I think we still have a 55 gallon drum of crunchy peanut butter around here somewhere from the days before we banned ourselves from Costco unless we were stocking up supplies for a party.  Last on the list of reasons to do it is that as Likes, +1’s, and other Social Signals increasingly impact SEO, it will become harder and harder to sell “cheap” unless you engage in these activities.  After all, one of the ways you got to be so cheap is you quit paying to have charming personalities engage with customers.  They’re over at Nordstrom and have been absent from Walmart for a long time if they were ever there.  You ain’t got nuttin’ but a whole lot of cheap to talk about, so hand out those coupons freely and hope your SEO will still be able to get you noticed.

All this musing on “cheap” does make one wonder whether the Internet helps or hurts any of Porter’s 3 big competitive strategies.  It looks to me like #3 benefits the most because I see it as the Long Tail.  Finally we can target ever smaller niches and aggregate enough of them to yield an interesting business.  Cheap rolls along happy as a clam.  No sales tax online (yet!).  Plenty of new tools to get the word out that you’re cheap.  How can you go wrong with that, other than that lower market friction means lower margins and cheap’s were already razor thin.  That’s probably why the latest iteration of give-away-something-of-apparent-value-to-lock-them-in is doing so well in the form of products like the iOS Walled Gardens and the new Kindle Fire.

Perhaps the one that is most challenged is #1.  In the old days, when you want the best, it seems like it was easier to seek it out and touch it.  There were fewer degrees of “best”, less diversity.  Perhaps I am confusing what to me looks like a candidate for “Best” but is in reality merely a niche product and I didn’t realize I live in that niche.  Either way, it seems like search brings an embarrassment of riches when it comes to best.  Yet, it is the products that truly are “Best” that I think have the biggest opportunity to do those Social Things that we dream about and that Sameer wishes companies would do instead of offering Coupons.  It is the products that are “Best” that have the greatest opportunity to produce wonderful content for Inbound marketing that gets good SEO.  The “Best” crowd actually have something worth talking about, worth engaging with, and worth a conversation.  This is true too for the niche players.

On balance, the arms race between the three models continues.  They each have good strategies to employ, even if they don’t appeal to everyone.  That’s normal.  That’s why we have 3 flavors.

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How Should We Think of Flash Going Forward?

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 22, 2011

Before writing this second part of my two-part series on Flash (first part: Flash: Misunderstood by Adobe, Apple, the Haters, and the Press), I wanted to allow sufficient time for all the shoes to drop.  Adobe needed to get their word out and the blogosphere needed to get its word out as well.  Now it’s time to go back and analyze what the future of Flash, Flex, and AIR look like going forward.

HTML5 is Inevitable

With apologies to Agent Smith, if there was ever the slightest doubt, and there should not have been, the noisy sound of Flash disappearing from mobile platforms is the sound of HTML5’s inevitability.  It’s the standard, and it was always going to be inevitable.  HTML5 is also inevitable just because it’s easier not to think of doing a project for more than one platform.   Companies prefer fewer platforms, all other things considered.

But, not only is it inevitable, the demise of Flash for mobile browsers should accelerate HTML5’s evolution and inevitability.  After all, the world used to be able to use Flash as a crutch whenever HTML couldn’t hack it.  That crutch has now been kicked out from underneath us, courtesy of Apple and Adobe deciding not to allow Flash on mobile browsers.  That will put market forces behind getting HTML5 up to the capabilities needed sooner rather than later.

Fragmentation is Inevitable

One thing Flash made it possible to do was to ignore fragmentation to a degree.  Write once, run everywhere was a beautiful thing.  It always is.  That promise is what put Java firmly ahead of C++ for a long time, and it is also a large part of what fueled Flash, together with the minimal capabilities that HTML and Javascript had for a long time.

Now companies are going to face fragmentation.  That means browsers will have differing levels of compatibility with HTML5, either due to features being missing, or to differences in how the features are implemented.  This is a problem that just never came up with Flash.  You wrote the code and it ran.  It’s been a huge problem for HTML/AJAX applications, and it will continue to be as bad or worse for HTML5.

If you run a software company, it means you’ll have to invest resources dealing with these browser incompatibilities.  This is some of the worst kind of pain for developers, because often the incompatibilities are not clearly documented.  You just have to keep trying different variations of code until you find code that works on all browsers, or you have to maintain different versions by browser.  You’re shooting in the dark.  It is an opportunity for those HTML5 tool makers that make the investment to ease the pain, but that’s a big investment and it remains to be seen who will really step up with a broad enough and well-proven solution.

In the worst case, your software development costs may go up substantially depending on how bad the fragmentation is.  This is not unlike the problem of supporting many databases, or many application servers, for Old School Enterprise Software.  At one company where I ran R&D, we invested as much as 40% of our R&D cycles basically on portability across many DB and app server platforms.  It shouldn’t be that bad here, but I could easily see it costing 20-25% more.  Or, companies will simply decide to quit supporting some platforms.  We’ve all been to sites that forced us to upgrade or switch browsers before we could use the site.  Unfortunately, for mobile platforms that only support one browser, that’s going to be tough.

It will be years before HTML5 catches up to where Flash is today

Flash has always been about a lot more than video and annoying animations on web sites, but the press and the haters never seem quite able to make that conceptual leap.  It’s a pity, but even if we limit ourselves to comparing Flash to HTML5 on movies and such, HTML5 has a long ways to go.  Consider for example ArsTechnica’s article, “The Trials and Tribulations of HTML5 Video in the Post-Flash Era.”  This is an unabashedly pro-HTML5 article that points out just how far HTML5 has to go on video alone.  Read the article, but the highlights for me is that the Open Standard lovers at Mozilla still have to use Flash to do real time streaming of their Red Panda cub mascots and the discussion of how the lack of DRM standards and availability for HTML5 means the content owners and streamers still can’t endorse it.  BTW, the latter are only too happy to drag their feet until they perceive some perfect solution.  They don’t want it to be easy to get access to their content.

If we’re lucky, we may get these video issues resolved by this time next year.  Finally, we’ll have video, but that’s a tiny part of what you can do with Flash today, and most Flash proponents would argue it is an unimportant part.  What about the rest of what you could do with the Flash ensemble?  What about Apps?

Flash/Flex/AIR Going Forward:  King of Apps Platforms?

Putting aside video, why would anyone have cared about Flash/Flex/AIR to start with?  If things were as bad as the haters said, it just wouldn’t matter.  Let’s go back a very short while in time, to before the iOS/Jobs kerfluffle started the process of killing Flash.  To a time when it was largely about the desktop.  We had largely the same Flash/Flex/AIR that we have today.  In fact, one could argue Adobe’s failure to evolve them fast enough led to their demise on mobile because they just didn’t present well–too many performance problems, too much battery consumption.

Before Flash had these mobile issues, it was a pretty neat platform.  It could build the richest UX anyone had ever seen.  The world had been pursuing interface builders for a long time.  I saw my first one on Steve Jobs’ NeXT, and most of the reason we bought one for Borland’s labs was to study the developer tools on NeXT.  Visual Basic got to be what it was largely because of its nifty interface builder.  That was the Visual in Visual Basic.  Adobe brought together an interface builder, a very nice OOP framework of objects called Flex, and a great language called Actionscript under one roof, and they made it run everywhere.  Even better, it was completely portable, write once, run anywhere.  With AIR, we could build powerful desktop applications.

Let’s be really clear about the advantages versus the alternatives:

- Write once run anywhere.  Still true for apps, no longer even in the running for browsers.

- Better language.  Actionscript is a much more modern than Javascript.  It has even run a lot faster for most of its life than Javascript.  Ironically, it was more the runtime functions, such as how video was implemented without supporting the native GPU, that hampered Flash performance.  If there is one thing developers seem to get wrapped around the axle about, it is their religion around their languages.  A lot of Actionscript developers really have to hold their noses when they try to switch to javascript.  Ironically (lots of irony for Flash), it is an Ecmascript language like javascript and one could directly graft its features into javascript if only you could get all the standards-making players to agree to do so.  One wonders whether HTML5 (or 6?) will ever tackle the problem of improving javascript.

- Rich Ecosystem.  There is a ton of code and expertise out there waiting to be leveraged for your Flash project.

- Standard Framework:  Love the Flex framework or hate it, at least it was standard and there was a considerable investment in it.  And if you didn’t like it, there were lots of other frameworks.

For some reason, most of the developer stack sex appeal has been on the back end server side.  MySQL and NoSQL.  Cloud Technologies.  Ruby on Rails, node.js, or name your favorite language du jour.  The client has always been sorely neglected.  Perhaps this is a function of the Internet revolution, where the focus has been on HTML, and innovative front end languages like Smalltalk fell by the wayside.  HTML itself is hacks layered on hacks.  It started out not much better off than half duplex 3270 green screens.  After years and years we finally added the AJAX hacks to make things a little nicer.  But it was never really designed to be elegant.  The original prototype for javascript was built in 10 days and rushed out the door.  That’s not to say the prototype didn’t have good breeding, Brendan Eich, it’s creator, has gone into all that, but nevertheless, it’s not a language that’s particularly polished.

Where are the cool client side stacks that are open and portable across many platforms?

There are some stacks built for writing games.  I’ve looked at a bunch of them hoping one will be a good Flash successor.  Sure doesn’t look like it.  They’re just so game-centric, and they have other issues that mitigate against calling them the ultimate app technologies.

What about HTML5 itself?  Well it just isn’t set up to live outside the browser.  I suppose it could someday.  After all, if node.js can bring javascript to the server, it seems very likely we can build some kind of equivalent to AIR for javascript.  In fact, AIR itself can be used with other languages and one would think making it work with HTML5 will be a high priority for Adobe.  For a time, Google supported this thing called Gears that was aimed at being able to run web apps while disconnected from the net.  But the future of gears is somewhat in doubt.  Whatever may come of turning HTML5 into an app platform has to wait until it has caught up on the web with things like video.

As far as I can tell, if you want a killer rich UX environment for creating powerful apps that are write once run anywhere on the desktop or mobile, Flash/Flex/AIR is the only game in town.  It’s no wonder, then, that this is where Adobe has chosen to make their final stand with Flash, targeting precisely that audience.  It’s unfortunate that they have so poorly understood the trust issues that their other announcements would create.  It may be that even though they have this fabulous platform, there’s been so much damage to the trust of their developers that they will not be able to successfully leverage it.

Going forward, developers will have to decide whether they believe Adobe is sufficiently committed that they want to use this platform for apps, or whether they’d rather take a politically safer route and deal with an inferior platform.  The costs are not insignificant in going the politically correct route, and worse, you don’t even really have the HTML5 wind at your back for non-browser apps.  Flash will be here for years, and even if Adobe does not continue to improve it, you already have the best tools for creating rich UX apps on all platforms, so maybe its worth ignoring the political considerations for a while longer in order to give alternatives a few years to catch up.

What it means for Adobe and Google going forward

As far as Adobe is concerned, they’ve got to be licking their wounds.  The strategy they’ve launched was poorly conceived and poorly communicated.  To the world it looked like Big Corporate Cutting Costs again, while they ignored the impact on the community.   Whether that’s what happened or not is immaterial, there is a large audience that feels betrayed.  Those who stick with it through inertia will be loath to be quite so loyal again, and in particular, their management will be much harder to convince going forward.  Everyone will be trying all the alternatives.

With that said, the Flash/Flex/AIR platform for apps is the best toolkit there is for building rich apps and it will take years to usurp that in any meaningful way.  Companies will have to choose between supporting fewer platforms (i.e. just iOS), living with fragmentation and loss of productivity if they walk from Flash, or living with the current political climate around Flash.  Not a happy choice to be sure.

What can Adobe do to shore up the trust issue?

I’d recommend two things.  First, in for a penny in for a pound.  Open Source the remaining bits of the platform–the Flash Player and AIR.  You’re in the business of selling tools, so keep Flash Builder to yourselves if need be, but you may as well put the rest of it out there so the community can at least be the masters of their own destiny.  You’ve already done it with Flex, and there are other bits and pieces.  Get it over with now.  Who knows, maybe this will re-ignite support for Flash in mobile browsers.  Second, declare your commitment in dollars and cents.  The secret fear everyone has is that the Adobe resources being committed to Flash dwindle day by day and announcement by announcement.  Put a stake in the ground around that.  If you have reduced the heads focused on Flash, tell us by how much.  Commit to keeping levels where they are, or at least be transparent about what’s really going on with your investment in Flash.

For Google, this has been as big a mess for you as for Adobe.  Guys, I don’t know how you can afford to let even one reason to pick an Android device over an iOS device go away.  There are definitely people picking Android over iOS because it (used to) support Flash.  Check out the comments on this thread.  The latest data sure shows lackluster interest in Android Tablets.  Apparently you have to slash prices all the way to Kindle Fire levels and put a huge name like Amazon’s on the device to get traction.  There’s also questions about how well apps sell even among the audience that bought Android.  Despite your 50% market share, Piper Jaffray says you only have 7% app revenue share.  That’s not good.  You should get with Adobe and embrace this whole Open Source movement for Flash.  Convince them to Open Source the rest of it and announce your own major commitment to keep it going.  Continue to build it into Chrome and keep it alive on your mobile platform.  Push as only Google can and Adobe clearly can’t.  You need to differentiate versus iOS.

For everybody else, analyze the impact of fragmentation

For everybody else, analyze the impact of fragmentation because that’s the big strategic move that’s afoot.

For smaller players, fragmentation is toxic.  If I am already being spread thin having to support more platforms, I will be looking for sensible cut off points where there is too little market share to matter.  I will draw my line in the sand there, and you will be stuck on the other side with not enough oxygen.  This is not an issue for iOS.  It is so successful, it goes at the top of the ports list.  Google Android, also safe, but needs to worry about the troubling preference of buyers for iOS as well as the patent wars.  Smaller share browser and mobile platform owners, look out.  You’re the ones who will be hardest hit by fragmentation.  Fragmentation benefits the incumbents and slows down the adoption of innovators.  It’s sand in the machine because it soaks up cycles that would otherwise be available for innovation.

Fragmentation is an interesting issue for Microsoft.  They’ve contributed to Flash’s demise by announcing they’re dropping plug-ins from Windows 8.  The question for Microsoft is going to be how much longer they can retain enough market share through their desktop hegemony to force people to deal with their platforms.  I have been watching incompatibility with current versions of IE get worse almost daily, particularly on G0ogle web properties, but fairly widespread.  IE hasn’t really changed, so it is the sites that are choosing to make changes without being concerned with IE compatibility.  Microsoft may already lack sufficient mindshare to convince developers to follow their lead if Win 8 and versions of IE related to Win 8 require much porting effort.

Posted in saas | 11 Comments »

When Capital Isn’t Scarce

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 16, 2011

For a long time VC’s and other investors bemoaned SaaS.  I head more than one say that nobody would ever be able to raise as much money as Salesforce did to IPO–$70M–so you just had to figure out how to do it much more cheaply than Salesforce had.

This morning I read that Marketo has raised a whopping $50M round, bringing their total to $107M.  Zuora is not far behind, raising $36M for a total of $80M.

I guess the conventional wisdom was wrong, and it hasn’t been that long ago that I was hearing that companies would have to be able to get there for a lot less than $70M.

This trend is interesting.  Marketo and Zuora are great companies, but they’re niche players compared to Salesforce, and SFDC was much earlier to the SaaS party.  They also have a lot more competition than it seems like SFDC did at the time.

I’m not sure what the justification is for these valuations and sums raised.  I do know there is a dearth of significant new SaaS companies in the pipeline.  You can build consumer Internet companies all day long on the Ramen budget Sand Hill has decreed is what works, but not Enterprise Software companies.  I don’t think Salesforce, Marketo, or Zuora could’ve been created out of a Y Combinator-like scenario.  In other words, if today’s rules had been in effect, they never would’ve been founded.  Interesting to wonder what companies are not being founded today because of those rules.  I did notice that there is a small but growing backlash against the whole capital-efficient-minimum-viable-product thesis.  Even Scoble had a rant on about it and he likes every shiny new thing.  Even shiny has a much higher minimum viable bar these days.

The VC market, like any other investment market, is a strange combination of herd behavior and contrarianism.  Being a contrarian is risky.  You have to pick the right time and the right investment thesis to do it.  Much safer to follow the herd right up until valuations are so high and competition so fierce that nobody is making money.  That’s when you need to start placing some contrarian bets.

I’ll be interested to see if the VC world gets back to funding more early stage Enterprise Software that may need significant capital even to build a product.  This may also simply be a judgement call to bet on the latest possible companies that will be ready to IPO soonest.  The former is a contrarian play, the latter a herd play.  Like I said, you need both, and you need to time the application of each appropriately.

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Flash: Misunderstood by Adobe, Apple, the Haters, and the Press

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 11, 2011

Seldom have I seen a technology so widely adopted yet so poorly understood, so polarized between haters and fanboys, and so indifferently managed by its owners.  It may have many other problems, but Flash’s worst problem is how widely it is misunderstood by key parties.

Flash is Misunderstood by Adobe

Adobe misunderstands not just Flash, but perhaps PR in general.  Steve Jobs could not have done more harm to the platform if he had choreographed the recent announcement that Flash would be abandoning Mobile Browsers.  How they could have let it first leak, ensuring the haters had built up a full head of steam, and then failed to have any well choreographed official announcement and discussion is a mystery to me.  All I saw was a long list of Adobe bloggers trying in what looked like a more or less independent way to convey what a good thing the announcement was.  How could they not realize every hater and link baiter in the land would be publishing headlines like, “Steve Jobs Wins” or “Steve’s Last Laugh.”  Adobe is not the first company that needed to de-invest in a product.  Why on Earth did they not find a way to follow the normal policy most companies have to avoid this kind of thing, which is to quietly wind down development while “sunsetting” the product?  Were they really that desparate to shave a few more jobs in their recent layoffs or just that dense?

This PR issue is closely related to Adobe’s misunderstandings about its customers and Flash.  Flash customers are a tribe.  They’re not cogs in the Adobe Machine.  Too often executives at Big Companies like Adobe think they can slice and dice their customers as easily as moving the formulas around on their spreadsheets.  Their knowledge of their customers starts to be limited to their spreadsheets.  They figure if Jack Welch got to be the world’s greatest CEO by only allowing investments in areas where they can be #1 or #2, all they have to do is kill anything that isn’t #1 or #2.  But that’s different from what Welch did because killing those things ignores the idea that there may be an important connection between the less-important-on-the-spreadsheet and the killer-strategic-things.  Just because no formula links the two doesn’t mean there isn’t a link in the Real World.  If you have an audience that’s loyal to Flash and you kill something important to that audience as you did here, even if it was only important for the sake of pride and being able to hold your head up, you lose.

But there are much broader and more strategic issues surrounding Flash that Adobe did not understand.  Chief among those was how rapidly smartphones would become critically important devices on the web.  According to ex-Flash manager Carlos Icaza, half of the Flash team were carrying iPhones in 2007, yet Adobe completely botched the User Experience on these phones until very recently.  Botched how?  By failing to make Flash graphics take proper advantage of whatever native graphics capability was available for the device.  How could it have taken so many years to get something as simple and widely used as video to play well on these devices?   We’ll get to the misunderstanding of the Haters and the Press soon, but doing video well is one of the main reasons Flash got where it is and one of the main things the Haters hated about Flash on Mobile.  Adobe let a Bad UX of epic proportions go on for years, and it just wasn’t that hard to fix or HTML5 wouldn’t have been able to make Flash look so bad there.

Adobe’s other strategic mistake is they are confused about who the Flash user is.  I don’t mean the consumer, but the user or customer that actually pays Adobe money.  Adobe  is a company that sells to Designers.  They like to talk Development Tools, but they are largely Design Tools like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.  The really key aspects of Flash are Developer-focused.  You can’t do much with it that isn’t doable in HTML5 (and even pre-HTML5) without being a developer.  The depth of this misunderstanding can be easily seen by reading blog posts like Jesse Warden’s rant about Flashbuilder.  Flashbuilder is Adobe’s IDE for Flash.  It is the UX by which a developer experiences Flash.  If Adobe had treated its design tools as Warden says they have Flashbuilder, it would be like arguing, “Well, Photoshop has the worst UX in the land, but the bitmaps it produces are enough better than other bitmaps that you should just deal with it.”  But, since Adobe mostly cares about Designers and not Developers, they didn’t understand how bad Flashbuilder was.  After all, the Designers weren’t complaining about it, and the Developers are just the dweebs who do the Designer’s bidding.  In fact, they went out of their way to cater to the workflows Designers prefer in Flash.  They even invested in building a tool called Catalyst to give Designers more power in the Flash world.  What a pity those investments didn’t go to making Flashbuilder the most phenomenal Developer’s UX out there.

There are so many areas where having a Developer’s hat on instead of a Designer’s hat could have made Flash better.  Why, for example, is there no decent Flash equivalent to node.js?  Cold Fusion?  Fail.  I shouldn’t have to buy more stuff to write server Flash.  It should be possible in the same IDE I am writing client Flash in.  Adobe, your mission is to sell gold pans and jeans to the Internet Gold Miners.  Developers are a critical part of that equation and you’re squandering a powerful tool there.

When I mentioned Flash’s customers are a Tribe, this is closely related to the fact that they are Developers.  They may be more Tribe-like than any other group Adobe deals with.  Have you checked the Internet lately to see how often Developers hang out and influence each other?  Have you seen unique properties like Stackoverflow?  Have you seen that the advent of Evangelists for Software started with Developer tools at places like Microsoft and my old alma mater Borland?  Developers are a tribe!

Flash is Misunderstood by Apple

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs stuck a knife in Flash’s side that hurt it badly.  He was articulate about his reasons, and it hurts me to say that he was right, and that being so slow was tragically avoidable by Adobe as I’ve discussed.  They just didn’t get it.  Shame on them.

But even as Steve Jobs was right, he was also wrong.  He was wrong for doing this because he wanted revenge on Adobe’s disloyalty to Apple, as is mentioned in his Biography.  He was wrong for doing this as much to help build his Walled Garden as to ensure better UX on iOS.  Flash was a terrible threat to the Walled Garden.  You can build any application in it and run that app from the browser (or at least you could once Adobe woke up and fixed the performance problems so Flash games like Technarium could flourish on iOS).  The world already wants to bypass the 30% tax that Apple places on any iOS app.  Giving it a powerful tool to do just that was unacceptable.  Flash had to be brought to heel.

But…

If we drag out our dog-eared copy of Mario Puzo’s the Godfather, Steven P. Jobs was short-sighted to have settled for simply killing Flash in mobile browsers.   He should have taken control of it.  He would have been far better off to ban it as he did, and then work hard at getting Adobe to fix the performance problems and to get them agree to letting Apple control which browser apps could be tolerated on iOS.  Then he could have brought them back in true conqueror fashion.  This would’ve opened the door to letting video, richer website UI, and other decidedly free things through while opening the door for Apple to control even browser apps since they’d need sign off from Apple.  As we learned from the Godfather, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Apple also would’ve benefited from a much slower burn on how fast HTML5 is coming to fruition.  It still has a long ways to go to catch Flash.  The best strategy for the Walled Gardens is to fragment the market for things like HTML5.  Maximize the noise and confusion.  Find a way to get even more alternatives into the mix.  These other technologies are all alternate platforms you don’t control.  They’re things that can wrest control away from your platform if they were ever to catch on sufficiently well and managed by the right evil strategic genius.

Flash and Adobe are Misunderstood by Google

It’s ironic that Adobe thinks the most important Flash constituents are Designers and not Developers, while Google, the best Web Monopoly on the Planet only sees Developers and not Designers, and hence has little interest in Adobe or Flash.  Google should have bought Adobe years ago.  What better way to cement their hegemony over the Web than to own many of the key design tools?  What better way to fix their Customer Service and Corporate/Enterprise selling issues than to buy a company that can do both?

Putting that can of worms aside for the moment, how could Google allow Flash browser support on mobile to die?  Don’t they realize this is as much a referendum on Android as it is Flash?  After all, Adobe is effectively saying, “There isn’t enough non-iOS Flash activity on mobile browsers to be worth carrying on”.  Or if you prefer, “iOS is so much more important than Android that even though they’ve treated us shabbily and you have stood by us, we’re going to cave in to them.”  If Google had to make an investment themselves, even a small investment to facilitate the sunsetting, they should have done so.  They could have built Flash into the Android platform.  Google also doesn’t understand the Tribe vs Cog view of Customers else they wouldn’t have done some of the things they have to their own products.

Flash is Misunderstood by the Haters and the Press

Haters gonna Hate, and that’s a misunderstanding all by itself.   I lump them in with the Press, because in many ways, the Press is gonna Press, which is to say, their job isn’t to understand, report fairly, or any of the other reasons we think we read them.  It’s to sell ink.

Still, it is amazing how often the press just doesn’t seem to understand what Flash is.  Take Harry McCracken’s post, “The Long National Nightmare With Flash is Over.”  Harry did his job linkbaiting, but his article is a great introduction to many of the misconceptions of the press and the haters:

  • “Watching video was frequently like going to see a movie at a theater with a projector that keeps breaking down.”  Harry, I get that experience frequently today on my desktop.  I get it even more frequently on my Flash-less iPhone.  How often are these things simply a matter of a lousy mobile network connection?  Yes, Adobe made it much worse by taking so long to fix video, but if you think the non-Flash world really does so much better, we have to agree to disagree.
  • “Bits and pieces of user interfaces didn’t work, and was often painfully obvious that they were designed for mouse input, not fingertips.”  No duh.  And HTML5, which is the write-once run anywhere successor to Flash, is going to fix the fact that the folks using the tools don’t always design for all platforms how?  The fact is, one problem Flash faced, no matter how well it worked, was it exposed the fact that a lot of content is lousy on mobile through no fault of Flash.  Harry, did you never see an HTML page that was impossible on a mobile device, especially a phone?  Have you dealt with browser incompatibilities which are back with a vengeance with HTML5?  Have you landed on a site only to have it tell you they don’t even support your browser, which may have huge market share?  How about that dreaded Android “fragmentation.”  I know you’ve heard of that, you know that these problems are not unique to Flash.  In many ways, Flash was doing the best job of minimizing them until the whole mobile schism started it up again.  More about that in my next post.
  • “Certain things did perform as promised, but I never knew whether they would until I tried, and none of them were exciting enough to make up for all the hassle.”  Harry, did you never really want to access a piece of content, knowing full well it would be lousy, but lousy being better than no access at all?  I have, many times on my iPad.  I’ve gone to sites that would’ve been fine if I could’ve just gotten past a screen or two.  No dice without Flash.
  • “Why, oh why, would a company like RIM triumphantly run pricey TV ads focused on Flash support?”  Well Harry, because there are people who actually like having Flash access.  Pity those poor fools now, I know.
  • “In fact, it ended up benefiting them, because site owners and software developers who couldn’t use Flash ended up using other technologies–HTML5 and native iOS apps–that actually worked.”  This is the big lie:  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, because HTML5 and native iOS always work really well and Flash never really worked at all.
Flash was always a lot more than video and cheezy web site animations, but the press has never gotten that and Adobe has never successfully communicated it.  I’ll say more soon.

Next Post:  How Should Flash Be Understood?

Postscript

Flex Open Sourced

Still trying to parse what this one means.  If Adobe hadn’t made these other announcements and proven themselves very untrustworthy, it would be easy to view this as a great thing to do.  Developers prefer Open Source, so having Flex be Open is a positive.  Where I would be cautious is in evaluating whether or not Adobe is using this as an excuse to reduce their investment in Flex.  Were they to continue making the same investment and Open it as well, you’d have to like that outcome.  The only language we have is this:

This project will be jointly led by some developers from the Flex SDK engineering team along with key developers from the Flex community, including members of the Spoon Project and contributors from enterprise companies currently using Flex. Flex SDK feature development will continue under a new governance model and Adobe will continue to contribute to the Flex SDK.

I have a hard time not reading that as Adobe reducing their investment in Flex and using the Open Source community as their excuse for why it’s okay.  Certainly the comments on that post are uniformly negative.  There is an additional entry that is also troubling:

In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development. We also know that, currently, Flex has clear benefits for large-scale client projects typically associated with desktop application profiles.

Taken together, that looks to me like fair-warning to SaaS companies and Enterprise Developers that Adobe is not interested in helping.  I wonder what this means to companies like Workday and Salesforce that have invested heavily?  It’s really unclear to me how they can reconcile this statement about Rich UI Enterprise Apps and have much room left for the future.  What’s left, just games delivered as apps?  At some stage, they have to decide whether they’ve sunset the whole Flash armada, or whether they will make a stand somewhere.  It’ll take years even if they have sunset for it to truly be done, but the way they’re handling roadmaps and announcements will hasten that sunset.

Mike Chambers on Flash

Probably the most detailed discussion yet from Adobe on why they did what they did. The emphasis is on AIR applications, not browser apps for Flash going forward. He doesn’t say this exactly, but if you follow his logic to its obvious conclusions, and factor in issues like OSX App Store and IE8 not supporting Flash by default, that’s the conclusion.

The comments on this thread are very unhappy, like most of the others. If nothing else, Adobe must be hearing loud and clear that they have, to use Reed Hasting’s expression, “let down their customers.”

How Should We Think of Flash Going Forward?

The second part of my two part series on Flash.

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The CEO is the Most Confident Man in the Company

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 5, 2011

I heard somewhere that one definition the Navy has of a ship’s captain is that he is, “the most confident man on the ship.”  A CEO could be similarly defined.

Why confidence as the defining quality for these leadership roles?

It’s because these roles will ultimately have to deal with leadership in the absence of data.  A lot of folks, particularly those from the engineering disciplines, view decision-making as a matter of waiting until there is enough data to make the decision obvious and then making it.  Unfortunately, leaders frequently have to make decisions absent sufficient data.  To be clear, another role of the leader is to make a determination whether the necessary data for a good decision is “tragically knowable“, but if it isn’t knowable, they still have to lead.  They can’t afford to heave to in the information doldrums and wait it out until inspiration strikes.

I’ve been thinking about all this after reading a series of posts in various places that have absolutely harpooned Reed Hastings of Netflix.  These posts have labeled Hastings egotistical, arrogant, full of hubris, and most recently Om Malik says he’s a narcisist.  None of these is very sympathetic to the man or to the role of CEO.  Wikipedia defines narcisist as:

“narcissism” usually is used to describe some kind of problem in a person or group’s relationships with self and others. In everyday speech, “narcissism” often means inflated self-importance, egotism, vanity, conceit, or simple selfishness. Applied to a social group, it is sometimes used to denote elitism or an indifference to the plight of others.

I don’t know whether Om means to be so derogatory, and I suppose the article he links to good be interpreted as giving narcists a back handed compliment by implying the can be good leaders.

Nevertheless, I do wonder whether all of these bloggers really understand what it means to be in a leadership position without sufficient data and with a scenario that demands rapid, decisive, decision-making.  I know Reed Hastings reasonably well, having had a startup acquired by him and going on the work for him for a short time after.  All I can say is that “arrogant, egotistical, full of hubris, and narccissistic” are the furthest things I would use to describe the man.  In my experience, he is self-deprecating, humble (he sold the Porsche he bought not long after his first IPO because he thought it was too ostentatious), and filled with a need to collect as much data as possible to do the right thing.  In fact, I’ve chided one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Seth Godin, on the need to collect data if it is available rather than “Just doing it.”

Based on what I know about the man, some set of circumstances were happening at Netflix that forced him to make some decisions without data that have led to the company’s current problems.  More than likely, the circumstances involved the content owners radically increasing their prices to Netflix.  They created one of those times when there was no opportunity to test, decisions had to be made, and it was “bet your company time.”

Watching this debacle, I am reminded of a common Silicon Valley saying:  CEO’s never deserve as much credit as they get when times are good nor as much blame when times are bad.

Is your CEO the most confident man in the company?  I hope so, because they sure will need to be.

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Seth Godin on Why the Minimum Viable Product May Not Be the Right Strategy

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 5, 2011

Great post by Seth Godin this morning on “When minimum viable product doesn’t work.”  I had also recently written a similar post on how minimum viable is largely a capital conservation strategy that benefits the investors more than the entrepreneurs:

We live in a world that has learned to embrace and even worship the notion of a “minimum viable product,”  not products that are the best that we can do.  This is done for risk mitigation reasons.  We are concerned that we may not know what’s best, we need to get feedback, and we need to move cautiously rather than boldly. It’s born of a desire to conserve capital and to raise capital.  Capital, in many ways, has trumped Vision, Passion, and Products.  Venture capital is hard to come by for Vision.  They’ve been burned too many times, and it is too hard to identify Visionaries.  It’s easier to fund traction.  Let the markets decide.  Let the people decide.  It’s democratic.  It’s safer.  But it will never produce Insanely Great the way Steve Jobs has.

Seth always has a great way to turn things on their head and look at them sideways to derive great insights.  In this case, Godin’s point has more to do with whether you can sustain the creative energy long enough in the face of repeatedly shipping something in the name of “minimum viable” that doesn’t quite get to critical mass.  His central point is that Marketing just doesn’t work like Engineering.

He’s right, as usual.

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New GMail Look Not So Helpful

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 2, 2011

Dang, I’ve got to be hatin’ on Google two posts in a row.  Sorry about that, but things have to be said.

The new GMail look and feel is not a step forward.  I don’t know who did the graphical design, but they’ve significantly lowered the contrast making it harder to use.  In a sea of monochromatic blacks and greys, the important UI bits just don’t pop like they did in the old design.  I find it’s easy to lose track of the “Send” button if I’m in the middle of a long email thread.

It’s interesting that GMail has this problem, because I find the design of Google+ to be excellent.  Google Reader is the only other app I use much after + and mail, and it’s graphical design is fine, if uninspiring.

I suspect Google doesn’t have very many really excellent UI designers, or if they do, they’re not highly empowered.  It’s a land where the uber-Geeks are algorithms and back-end Geeks.  Somehow, schools seem to always teach UI and algorithms/backend/database at the same time–students seem to largely only be able to do one or the other.

Posted in saas | 2 Comments »

Google Reader: Another Brick in Google’s Garden Wall

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 1, 2011

Just got home to find my new updated Google Reader.  It’s useless now.  The sharing choice is gone.  They warned us they were going to do that.  I still have the ability to star, but in place of sharing, I get a Google+ button.  This completely defeats my old workflow, not to mention eliminates the possibility of my old share RSS feed.

My workflow had been one of marking everything interesting as “Share”, and marking everything that might be germane to a blog post I could see myself writing “Star”.  If I wanted to blog, it was easy to go look at the starred items.  If I was trying to remember some article I’d read, I could go search the shared and get way closer than any other search method I know of to find it.  Alas, I now have the ability to search “Recommended”, which is apparently anything anyone decided to +1.  What they’ve really done here is to reserve all value that may come of curation for themselves.  You can’t even get your own curation back out again.  This is evil in my book, pure and simple.  When a company takes away a feature they used to support strictly to create a higher wall around their garden, it’s pretty hard not to call it evil.  Yet, that seems to be the latest craze in the social networking world.  The goal is to set up only interactions facing in.  If you want to move anything back out again, there’s nothing but obstacles, as many as the network owner can think of to create.

These sites are all working so hard to be AOL all over again, the one stop shop that’s the only place you ever need to go on the Internet, and it’s repulsive.  The problem is everyone is gaming the short head when all the interesting stuff is in the long tail.  VC Fred Wilson bemoaned the leaderboard nature of app stores, where the 1% lucky enough to be on top get perpetually richer and the remaining 99% suffer in obscurity because nobody can find their apps.  The problem is all the major players are building their web properties into Roach Motels where the attention and content check in but never leave.  Your in-room entertainment in the Roach Motel is the Echo Chamber, brought to you by authority based ranking systems and walled garden social interaction.  Down with RSS, we’ve publicized that nobody uses it anyway, blogging is dead, and let’s all get into this hare-brained-dumb-as-TV-couch-potatoes mode of using the Internet.  Sure it sells, but it’s a dead end intellectually bankrupt monoculture.  It’s inane.

Robert Scoble loves it.  He’s only too happy to jump on the latest thing and see how fast he can build momentum.  I notice in the Scoble article I linked to that he says Fred Wilson told him not to give up the blog:

Fred, you told me that I was nuts to give up my blog (I told you I had left it for the better engagement of Google+). You told me that it is dangerous to not own a place with your own name on it, on servers that you — at least in theory — control.

Ironic, because I’ve argued with Fred on a couple of occasions not to give up ownership of his music.  Fred wants everything streamed and doesn’t care to own any music.  The problem comes when you get home from work and discover something you really liked about your music service was permanently and fundamentally changed, just like what Google has done to Reader.  Nevertheless Fred is right in what he says to Scoble.  It’s also ironic that Scoble fell off the blogging wagon for Twitter, went through interventions and all sorts of cockamamie goings on from the likes of Mike Arrington and others, never really did quite get back up on the blogging horse the way he used to, and now he’s looking to make the same sort of jump again, this time for Google+.

He says he’s already lost a bunch of stuff he wrote pre-2003, and he doesn’t really care about it too much.  But this isn’t about losing something 8 years old you haven’t looked at in probably 7 years.  This is about the possibility you can walk in and lose something fundamental you used to have 24 hours ago and that you depend on.  Don’t think it will happen?  Why shouldn’t it happen if Google or whoever else that owns the platform decides it means money to them?  What if they just flat make an error and lock you out or lose your data?  Hasn’t Facebook done annoying thing on top of annoying thing as they’ve thrashed around on privacy, largely to try to make their property more valuable to advertisers regardless of what it did to their users?

Here’s the problem for everyone that isn’t Scoble:  if you really want to get the good stuff, it isn’t on Techmeme.  It isn’t in the most widely read blogs, whether you prefer Techcrunch, RWWeb, or some other.  And it definitely isn’t in the latest walled garden Social Network.  Those places are emphasizing the short head, not the long tail.  They are the Echo Chambers.  If you want the good stuff, you have to hike up the river, until it becomes a stream, and then still further to the very sources high in the mountains.  That’s where the cool clean glacial waters of the Long Tail originate.  That’s where the good stuff is.  You’ll never see most of it if you spend all your time in the Echo Chamber, and it’s a real shame because the promise of the Internet is that it unlocks the Long Tail.  Get off the Bell Curve and move not just one, but several stand deviations away from the mean.  That’s where the real juice is.  Sure it’s hard work.  But if you want to maximize your information diversity, there’s going to be a little friction.

Scoble sidesteps all that in a way that you or I can’t:  he gets more scoops than he can ever write about as people come to him.  Same with guys like Michael Arrington.  They aren’t discovering these scoops on G00gle+ or Twitter, so why would you think that you can?  They’re simply using such networks to spoon feed the public.  That’s great if you want to be spoon fed, but there is so much more available from the Internet.  Why not feast on its wholesome organic information goodness?

I’m off to try to find a new RSS reader.  I don’t know if anyone even bothers any more to make one that’s useful in producing a sharing feed, if not, I guess I’ll write one–it isn’t that hard to do.  I may even just use a WordPress blog to do it.  I have been experimenting with that for a work project since I knew Google Reader had a lobotomy on the way.  So far it’s been pretty cool.

The more I see how Google is going to manage Google+, the less I want to invest my time and energy in it creating content and engagement for them to profit from, but being unable to repackage my own content to use as I see fit.

Posted in saas | 9 Comments »

 
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