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Posts from the ‘Apple’ Category

Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

This past week, I was able to attend the inaugural Code Conference organized by Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher.  One of the perks of the conference is, within close quarters, the chance to hear the leaders of huge, successful consumer technology companies.

      • Satya Nadella, Microsoft
      • Sergey Brin, Google
      • Brian Krzanich, Intel
      • Brian Roberts, Comcast
      • Reed Hastings, Netflix
      • Travis Kalanick, Uber
      • Drew Houston, Dropbox
      • Eddie Cue, Apple (iTunes / iCloud)

As I think about lessons from the conference, I find myself focused on a particular insight watching these leaders defend their company’s strategy and focus.  (It’s worth noting that anyone being interviewed by Kara does, in fact, have to be ready to play defense.)

David to Goliath

One of the most complex transitions that every consumer technology company has to make is from David to Goliath.  It’s extremely difficult in part because the timing is somewhat unpredictable.  Is Netflix an upstart versus the cable monolith, or a goliath itself as it is responsible for a third of all internet traffic?  When exactly did Google go from cool startup to a giant that even governments potentially fear?  Apple, of course, went from startup to giant to “beleaguered” and all the way to juggernaut.

Make no mistake, however.  The change in public opinion does happen, and when it does, the exact same behaviors and decisions can be read very differently in the court of public opinion.

Technology to Economics to Politics

Most technology companies begin with language that talks about their technical platform and achievements. “Our new product is 10x faster than anything else on the market,” or “Our new platform can handle 10x the data of existing platforms,” etc.  Sometimes, these technical achievements are reframed around end users: “We help connect over 1 billion people every day,” or “we help share over 10 billion photos a week,” etc.

Quickly, however, the best technology companies tend to shift to economics. “Our new product will let you get twice the sales in half the time,” or “our application will save you time and money.”  As they grow, those economic impacts grow as well.  Markets of billions of dollars are commonplace, and opportunities measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, as David moves to Goliath, it seems that many technology leaders miss the subtle shift in the expectations from their leadership.   When you wield market power that can be measured on a national (or international) scale, the challenge shifts from economics to politics.  Consumers want to know what leaders they are “electing” with their time and money, and their questions often shift implicitly to values and rights rather than speed or cost.

What Will the World Be Like Under Your Leadership?

As I watched various leaders answer hard questions about their companies, a clear division took place.  Most focused merely on questions of whether they would succeed or fail.  But a few did a great job elevating the discussion to a view of what the world will be like if they are successful.

There is no question that the leaders who elevated the discussion are finding more success in the market.

Satya Nadella gave no real reason why we would like the world better if Microsoft is successful.  Neither did Brian Krzanich of Intel.

Sergey Brin promises that in a world where Google is successful, we’ll have self-driving cars and fast internet for everyone.  Jet packs & flying cars.  It’s an old pitch, but a good one.

Eddie Cue tells us that Apple cares about making sure there is still great music in the world.  And of course, Apple has spent decades convincing us that when they are successful, we get new shiny, well-designed devices every year.

Is it really surprising that Google & Apple have elevated brands with high consumer value?

Technology Leadership

There is no way around the challenges of power.  As any company grows, it’s power grows, and with that power comes concern and fear around the use of that power.  Google has so much control over information and access to information.  Apple tends to wield tight control over the economics and opportunities within their ecosystem.  However, the leaders at these companies are intelligently making sure that the opportunities they promise the market counter-balance those fears, at least at some level.

Wealthfront, my company, is still small enough that we’re far from being considered anything but a small (but rapidly growing) startup in a space where giants measure their markets in the trillions.  But as I watched these technology leaders at the Code Conference, I realized that someday, if we’re successful, this same challenge will face our company.

If you lead or work for a technology giant, it’s worth asking the question:

Does your message elevate to the point where everyone understands the tangible benefit of living in a world where your company is successful?  If not, I’d argue your likely to face increasing headwinds in your efforts to compete in the consumer market going forward.

Make Things As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Albert Einstein

It has become fashionable of late, during the second coming of Apple, for a large number of consultants, executives and professional speakers to frame simplicity as an absolute good.  Simplicity, however, can have a number of negative implications for both design and usability, so I thought it prudent to highlight a few of its limitations as a guiding principal.

Ockham’s Razor vs. Einstein’s Razor

Before jumping to technology, it’s worth noting that this debate has origins in science as well.  Ockham’s Razor famously dictates that, given two hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  While not absolute, the principle is important because it shifts the burden of proof to the more complicated explanation.

Einstein (as quoted at the top of this post), pointed out the obvious: simplicity has its limits.  As a result, Einstein’s Razor is commonly stated as:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Too many entrepreneurs and executives preaching the simple religion forget this.

Example: iPhone Home Button

When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was an extremely aggressive vision of the future of the smartphone.  Bucking the trend from 12-key numberpads to full QWERTY keypads, the iPhone debuted with just one button.

What could be simpler than one button?

iphone

Well, technically zero buttons would have been simpler.

iphone-0

Why the single button?  Apple decided this was as simple as they could get it without hiding a key function they felt people needed to be able to access with “tactile” accessibility.  Apple had decided to remove quite a bit of tactile access from the phone.  Feature phone users lost the ability to know that the “*” key was in the bottom left, or “3” was on the bottom right.  Treo & Blackberry users lost the ability, without looking, to know where keys like space and return were.

The answer? Apple decided that the importance of having a tactile method of accessing “home” was more important than enforcing that next level of simplification.  Simple as possible, but not simpler.

Wait? They Added a Switch?

Industrial design aficionados might have already spotted an issue with my previous example.  Apple may have reduced the keypad to a single button, but they actually were applauded at launch for adding a new physical control.

Apple added a hardware switch to mute the phone.

iphone2G

Along with hardware buttons for home, power, and volume up/down, the iPhone added a physical switch for turning mute on or off.

With most other dominant systems at the time (Nokia, Blackberry), turning off your ringer meant navigating from:

Home -> Settings -> Ringer (or Volume) -> Off

Now you could argue that Apple “simplified” the ability to turn off the ringer, but from an interface standpoint they added a control to their highest level of information architecture (the device) for this one function.  This is roughly the equivalent of a website adding this function to its primary header.

In the push to reduce the number of controls, simplicity gave way to an equally important design consideration: minimizing the number of steps to perform a high value action (with the added benefit of tactile access, crucial for a function you might want to perform sight-unseen, in your pocket)

Simplicity Can Lead to Overloading, Which Is Complex

Anyone who has worked on a design project around information architecture is familiar with the tradeoff.  Reducing the number of controls or number of entry points definitely simplifies the interface.  Fewer choices, less cognitive load on the user.

Unfortunately, if you have five branches at each level of a command structure, you can make 25 commands just two steps away.  If you have three branches at each level, you need three steps to reach that same number of commands.

No one wants to replicate the Microsoft Office hierarchy of thousands of commands littered across dozens of entry points.  But if your software honestly has four key functions, “simplifying” to one entry point can make the users job harder, not easier.

Wealthfront: Building Trust with Transparency

At Wealthfront, one of top priorities is building trust with guest visitors to our site.  Interestingly, we’ve discovered that over-simplification has another negative attribute: when people don’t readily see the answer to a key question, there is potential for them to assume you’re hiding that information.

As a result, our new user experience is a careful balance of simplicity, but balanced with providing crucial information to our visitors, even at the risk of some complexity.

We show our clients up front our investment choices, down to quick answers for why we’ve chosen each particular ETF.  We provide examples of both taxable and tax-deferred account allocations up front, even before the visitor has signed up for the service.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 4.08.39 PM

To be sure, like all software interfaces, there are significant improvements that we can make to our new user experience.  But it’s worth sharing that our experience has been that blind adherence to simplicity can actually hurt the level of confidence and trust people have with your service.  This interface has seen the company to record growth in 2013, up over 250% for the year (as of September).

More broadly, it’s worth considering that when you bury functions and features, you may trigger emotions in your user that aren’t positive:

  • Frustration. They don’t know where to look for something they want.
  • AnxietyThey worry that the thing they need is no longer supported.
  • Distrust. They assume that you are hiding something for a reason.

So remember, when someone preaches the religion of simplicity, think carefully about Einstein’s Razor.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Home Storage & Network Topology (2013)

In 2011, I wrote a fairly popular blog post outlining my home solution for storage & backup:

Since it has been almost two years, I thought I’d update the information with some improvements.

Updated Network Topology

In 2012, I had a chance to update our network infrastructure, and as a result we have a slightly different home network topology than the one I diagrammed in 2011.  The following image shows the current, high level structure (note: I haven’t documented all devices or switches on the network)

home_storage_topology_20132013 Home Network Topology

Enhancement: Comcast 105Mbps Service

In March 2013, Comcast announced doubling it’s internet connectivity speeds in the San Francisco Bay Area for no additional cost.  This proved to be enough of an improvement to get me to face the reality that AT&T Uverse was never, ever going to get any faster than 24Mbps.

As a result, my order is in to convert to Comcast.  I’ll post here if the experience is anything but what’s expected – a massive increase in download speeds.  With multiple people in our household now hitting Netflix streaming up to four at once, I think the upgrade is perfectly timed.

Enhancement: WD 6TB Thunderbolt Duo for iTunes

Last month, tragedy struck.  The 4TB USB 3.0 hard drive I had been using for the main iTunes library crashed.  Fortunately, thanks to the backup solution in place, all files were recovered.

The only problem was recovery time.  It was slow.  It turns out, restoring about 3.5 TB from the Synology box to a USB hard drive took over 38 hours.  Now, granted, Time Machine isn’t the fastest recovery software, but it’s what I’ve been using reliably.

At 3.5TB, I realized I was going to max out the Seagate 4TB drives soon anyway.  After some research, I decided to get the 6TB Western Digital Thunderbolt Duo.  With two 3TB drives striped with RAID 0, combined with the 10Gbps Thunderbolt bus, I was hoping for significant speed improvements.

Restoring 3.5TB via Time Machine from my Synology box to the Thunderbolt Duo took less than 16 hours, a huge improvement over the previous experience with the Seagate USB drive.  Most of this benefit is likely due to Thunderbolt bus (I gave the drive a dedicated port on the iMac.)  Regardless, I’m thrilled to have a solution that will continue to scale through the year until larger single disk drives are available. (As a caveat, I’m now at double the risk of failure on the main iTunes drive, since if either drive fails, the whole drive will fail.)

Last Note: Stagnation in Hard Drives

It’s worth noting that it has been over 18 months since we’ve seen a larger single 3.5″ hard drive size.  We’ve been promised 6TB drives later this year, with headroom to 60TB for a 3.5″ drive on the upcoming technology, but it’s clear that single disk storage isn’t really keeping up with the increasingly large file sizes of HD video storage.  Imagine the strain when files go to 3D and Ultra HD formats.

For those of you who are interested in these type of technical details, I hope you find the above useful.

Home Media / AV Configuration (2013)

From time to time, friends and family will ask me how I configure the devices in my house for media.  Since I just got this question again last week, I thought I’d take a moment to document it here.  In the past, I’ve documented my storage & backup solution, my time machine setup, as well the configuration of my old wireless network.

Basic Assumptions

Since there are an incredible number of technology and service choices that can affect a home media solution, it’s best I put some of the basic decisions that my household currently has made around media technology:

    Comcast HD is our HD television service

  • iTunes HD is our standard movie purchase format
  • Netflix is used for movie rental
  • Tivo is our DVR of choice

Of all of these choices, the ones that are most material are the choice of Comcast HD / Tivo, as Comcast is the best HD service for modern Tivo DVRs, and the standardization on iTunes HD, not Blu-Ray, for HD movie purchases.

Office Configuration

Our home media solution is grounded in the home office, but really has become fairly distributed between the cloud and local devices. In fact, at this point, the home office solution is really used more for backup and legacy purposes.

Home Office Media

The key elements of the configuration are as follows:

  • The iMac is really the “source of truth” for the media library in the house
  • The media library is large (each HD movie is about 4GB), so it sits on its own 4TB USB HD
  • The iMac backups up to the Synology box via Time Machine
  • Wireless devices (laptops, iPads, iPhones) connect via 802.11N
  • The Gigabit Ethernet switch is connected to the central home network

Living Room Configuration

The consumption solution in any room with a television is largely the same.  Here is a diagram of it’s fundamental components:

Living Room Media

The key elements of the configuration are as follows:

  • The Gigabit Ethernet switch connects all the devices to the central home network
  • The AppleTV is used to watch purchased HD movies from iTunes, Netflix for streaming, and access the home media library on the iMac
  • The Tivo is used to watch live / recorded television (from Comcast)
  • The Blu-Ray is there theoretically if we wanted to watch a Blu Ray, which almost never happens

A Few Caveats

This solution currently has the notable sub-optimal elements:

    • I didn’t include an A/V receiver or surround sound solution in the above description, because that actually varies room to room.  In some rooms we have an AV receiver, in others we utilize a surround sound bar or just use TV audio.

Input switching.  We almost never use the Blu-Ray, but this solution does require switching inputs between AppleTV & Tivo, which is a bit annoying since the Tivo remote can’t control the AppleTV and vice-versa.

While I’m sure this solution will not impress any cinephile out there, hopefully it will be useful to a few of you thinking through how to setup or reconfigure your home media solution.

I’ll try to do a follow up post with what I’m hoping to see in 2013 to make this even better.

Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Today, Research in Motion Blackberry announced with great fanfare their new Blackberry 10 operating system and devices.  Unfortunately, the market has shifted so radically in the past few years, it’s not clear to me what path exists for any meaningful success for Blackberry.

Blackberry is on an impossible mission.

Why Blackberry?

I used a Blackberry for over seven years.  In fact, I didn’t move to the iPhone until the 3G came out with the native application platform.  Like many, I was addicted to the perceived and actual productivity of messaging on the Blackberry and the physical keyboard.

Like most people who make the switch, it took me a few weeks to get to be “good enough” to type and message effectively on the iPhone.  The millions who are still on the Blackberry tend to focus on exactly one issue: the Blackberry is an amazing messaging device, thanks to the keyboard & software optimization.

The Victory of the Touch Screen

I remember, in 2009, making a Blackberry my temporary “full time” mobile device for a few days.  It was amazing – in just a year, I had completely lost all the muscle memory that made me so productive on the Blackberry.  The iPhone had won.

The reason is simple: a fast, modern device that offers the full richness of the modern web, combined with a vibrant and high quality native application market dominates the marginal efficiency in messaging.  Whether you use iOS or Android, minor productivity improvements in SMS & Email are swamped by access to applications, games, web services, cloud platforms and a myriad of other capabilities.  The smartphone itself has now evolved into a variety of form factors and niches, with phablets and tablets eating an increasing share of our attention and computing.

Blackberry’s Impossible Mission

Right now, it seems like Blackberry has no viable path as a third platform.

Yes, the ardent users of the platform can buy the new devices for their hardware keyboards.  But there aren’t enough of them (h/t to Daring Fireball), and it’s hard to imagine that this market won’t get eaten by the flexibility provided by the Android platform in time.

Yes, there are IT departments that continue to have their companies locked down on the Blackberry, but it’s unlikely the the new operating system won’t create sufficient migration issues that they won’t move to either iOS, Android or both as supported platforms.

The real problem is that their touchscreen product cannot possibly provide enough unique functionality to justify the choice over the iPhone or Android at the medium to high end.  At the low end, they cannot possibly underprice the Android ecosystem.

Damned if they do, Damned if they don’t

In other words, if they abandon their customer-defined differentiator (keyboard), they’ll lose all differentiation in the market.  If they don’t, they are left with an eroding, minority share of a market that is likely insufficient in size and economics to fund their continued development and support of a competitive mobile ecosystem.  As a developer, spending precious resources on this, at best, stagnant minority pool of potential users is tough to justify.

Microsoft can play this game, for a while, because they (still) have relatively unlimited free cash flow and a desktop platform that still boasts hundreds of millions of users.  Blackberry doesn’t.

How to Recover the Left Side Navigation in iTunes 11

I can’t believe I’m writing this blog post, but I am.

Last night, I tweeted out my joy at finding out that Apple did, in fact, provide a menu item to re-enable the side navigation in iTunes 11.  Now, while I’m not a huge fan of the complexity and modality of the older iTunes interface, there is no doubt that after using iTunes 11 for a week, you wish for the halcyon days of the left navigation bar.

Surprisingly, enough people tweeted and commented in gratitude that I realized I should probably summarize in a blog post.

iTunes 11 – Default

This is the iTunes 11 default interface. (Try to ignore my taste in movies for a second)

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.09.42 AM

iTunes 11 – Sidebar

This is iTunes 11 with the sidebar enabled.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.14.16 AM

All of a sudden, the shockingly horrid modality of the iTunes 11 default interface is resolved.  You can easily select which sub-category of content in your iTunes library you want to browse, and viewing connected devices and playlists has once again become trivial.  It turns out, you still end up with the horrid choices for navigation views within a “domain”, but at least we’re 80% of the way back to the (limited) usability of the previous iTunes interface.

Wait, How Did You Do It?

It’s hidden under the View menu, “Show Sidebar”

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.13.27 AM

Simple does not mean Easy to Use

Just as cuffs, collars and neckties are subject to the whims of fashion, so also do memes in design tend to come and go in software.  I think iTunes 11 represents a bit of a teachable moment on a couple concepts that have been overplayed recently, and what happens when you take them too far.

  1. Consistency does not always lead to ease of use.  Having a more consistent interface between the iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Mac OS renditions of iTunes may seem like an “obvious” goal, but the fact is all of these devices vary in terms of input mechanisms and use cases.  The truth is, many users sit down at a desktop for different tasks than they sit down at a TV for, and the interface of the desktop is optimized for those tasks with large, high resolution screens and a keyboard.My best guess here is that Apple optimized the interface for laptops, not desktops, and for consumption, not curation. However, Apple would have been well served to provide a “first launch” experience with packaged pre-sets of these minor configurable options, to let users who are upgrading easily identify their primary mode of operation.I would love Apple to take a more proactive stance on how to build applications and services that provide elements of commonality across the multitude of devices that users increasing use to author, curate and consume content with, without blind adherence to making everything look & behave “the same”.
  2. Simple does not mean easy to use.   On the heals of Steve Jobs mania, it has become ultra-fashionable to talk about simplicity as the end-all, be-all of product design.  The fact is, there is often a trade off between reducing the number of controls that an application (or device) has, and introducing increased modality for commonly used functions.  The one button mouse was, in fact, simpler than the two button mouse.  However, it came at the expense of pushing a significant amount of functionality into a combination of selection and menu modality.Look at the poor “single button” on the iPhone.  Simple, but now stacked with modality based on the number and timing of presses.Designers would do well to consider the balance of simplicity, accessibility and the difficult decision of which functions are so key to an application that they require “zero click” comprehension of availability.  For iTunes 11, the hidden modality of managing the devices synched to your iTunes library is unforgivable. (The likely sin here is being too forward looking. As we move to iCloud for everything, the need for devices to be tethered to iTunes goes away.  But we’re not there yet with video.)

I hope this helps at least one person out there have a better experience with iTunes 11.

Apple & Dow 15000: Update

In February 2012, I wrote a blog post that indicted the Dow Jones Industrial Average for including Cisco in 2009 instead of Apple.  At the time, Apple had just crossed $500 per share, and that simple decision had cost the US the psychology of an index hitting new highs.

I was driving home on Sunday, listening to the radio, and it occurred to me how different the financial news would be if Apple ($AAPL) was in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI).

Of course, being who I am, I went home and built a spreadsheet to recalculate what would have happened if Dow Jones had decided to add Apple to the index instead of Cisco back in 2009.  Imagine my surprise to see that the Dow be over 2000 points higher.

Update: AAPL at $700

With the launch of the iPhone 5, we find ourselves roughly 7 months later.  For fun, I re-ran the spreadsheet that calculated what the DJIA would be at if they had added AAPL to the index in 2009 instead of CSCO. (To date, I’ve never seen an explanation on why Cisco was selected to represent computer hardware instead of Apple.)

Result: Dow 16,600

As of September 17, 2012, AAPL closed at 699.781/share.  As it turns out, if Dow Jones had added Apple instead of Cisco in 2009, the index would now be at 16,617.82.  Hard to think that hitting all new highs wouldn’t be material for market psychology and the election.

Anyone up for Dow 20,000?

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