Can a Business Really Do No Evil?

I took a week off last week and a lot happened while I was away (literally) shooting the stars. I want to talk about two of those events today, the Oracle / Java debacle and the Google / Verizon debacle.

First, let’s recap. Google and Verizon partnered early last week on a proposal sent to the law makers in the US on their vision of net neutrality … on mobile devices. As anyone could have predicted, that was not a great way to make friends on the Internet. The proposal itself is interesting, but what makes it really interesting for me is that Google’s own philosophy and motto over the years as always been “Do no evil”. Not sure many people still agree with this one.

This was followed earlier this week by Oracle’s move with regards to Java. When Oracle bought Sun, it acquired amongst other things Java, a piece of technology that’s kinda-but-not-100% open source. Actually, a big part of it is, but it ends up the tech is certainly not free of patent issues. In a move best described as a great way to kill off any good will you might have had with the open source community, Oracle decided to go after the money and sued Google for its use of Java in Android.

And in a move that proves that Oracle is not afraid of completely destroying it’s open source credibility in just one week, the company announced the end of Open Solaris.

If I was a MySQL developer, I might be nervous right now. Remember when Sun bought MySQL and we were all nervous about what they would do? Well, the shark has been eaten by an even bigger shark and this one’s not afraid to shake things up.

All of this and more importantly yet, the reaction to all this online reminded me of something I’ve been saying for years : a public company is neither your friend nor your enemy. It’s a company whose primary goal is to make its investors richer by making the action trade higher. Good / bad products, open source good will, good reputation, etc. are all just by products of this goal. It’s true for Oracle and it’s true for every other business out there.

I’m a big fan of Apple’s products lately, but I’m under no illusion that the goal of Steve Jobs is really to make the company more profitable. Often I don’t mind their decisions, but sometime I do (as with the ipad being unable to share the iPhone’s data plan).

Being a fan of a company is fine, but we need to keep in mind that these entities are not our friends.

Adding Hardware to Your Software

It’s fascinating to look at the multitude similarities and differences between Apple and Microsoft or even Google. One of the key differentiator is that Apple never releases only a software, they always pair it up with an hardware release whereas Microsoft rarely does. The reason is obvious, Microsoft chooses to work with 3rd party to create an “open” ecosystem whereas Apple does it all alone.

While there’s no denying Microsoft’s successes in the past (and even present) with the PC, embedded and portable devices are another world completely. Take a look at the iPod Touch, the iPhone or the iPad. Microsoft had a tablet PC all the way back in 2001 but the thing never caught on. It was an OK piece of software (Windows & Office, neither quite well adapted) tied to a series of OK devices by 3rd parties. Where Apple succeeds is by not only creating a great piece of software (the iPhone OS) but by also coupling it with a great piece of hardware of its own. What you get is the optimal use of that hardware and an attention to detail you don’t get when you have several 3rd parties working together to create a device.

A lot of people online clamor for a more open device from Apple or for Apple to license Mac OS X to PC manufacturers. To ask for that is to not understand what makes Apple products so compelling. You need that tight relationship with your hardware for the software to make any sense and vice-versa. An open-specced iPhone means multiple devices, some with a big screen, some with a small screen. Some with keyboards, some without. What you get, is the Android situation. A great OS tied to a potentially great App store crippled by the fact that 3rd parties are creating the phones and as such, there are tens of different configurations already and the App store is fragmented beyond belief because no small developer can support every phone. Let’s face it, none of us have 10 phones to test on.

This is why Google released the Nexus One. This is why Apple is dominating the App store business. And this is why the iPad will succeed to some extent. On day one, there will be more than 150 000 apps available for it. On day one, developers will make money on it. That’s unfortunately not the case with the myriads of other tablets that will be hitting the market in 2010.

Speaking of the iPad. I’ll have a full post on it early this week.

Media Outlets VS Journalists or Why We Don’t Need To Save The Newspapers

For several years now, we’ve seen many traditional media outlet either close or be very close to closing. From newspapers to trade magazines to even television stations, it’s obvious that the Internet and technology in general have been changing the way media works. That’s nothing new and it’s not news either.

When talking about this, one thing you often hear is that as cool and fun the Internet is, we need the traditional media because we need the journalistic integrity and ethics we associate with them. The problem with a statement like this is that it confuses the media outlets and the journalists themselves. Why care about those old media outlets? They’re old, they’re using an outdated way of bringing us the news and they’re way to costly to operate.We *do* need the journalists themselves however. People who, unlike bloggers and tweeters, will go the extra mile and research the story and hopefully present it in a neutral way. There’s one example of a local daily newspaper here in Montreal that I want to use as an example.

Because of a strike/Lock-Out, the journalists of the “Journal de MontrĂ©al” have been doing their own thing on a Web Site they started themselves. The result ? The same quality of journalism by the same people. I don’t know if they are making a lot of money with it, but even though it’s basically a “while we’re not at work” operation, they have done a fairly good job of getting their brand out there and by the look of it, they seem to be getting good numbers.

In a world where newspapers are closing left and right, it’s great to see a good journalists band together and make something happen. I hope they do get good numbers and simply leave the newspaper altogether. They’re using Twitter and their site to promote themselves and while they certainly could do better with regards to new media, they’ve been doing a lot better than their old newspaper is.

One thing to keep in mind is that what really matters is the content, not the container. Saving the containers (the newspapers) is not what we need. The content (and of course, the content producers) should be our focus. With Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Vimeo, UStream and Qik, we have more than enough container to accommodate everyone.

Managing The Unmanageable

Over the past 2 months or so, 2 stories came out where Microsoft didn’t look too good. The first time around, the company was accused of stealing open source code for its USB/DVD Download Tool for Windows 7. Paul Thurrott had the story in early november on his SuperSite for Windows. In that case, we later learned that a contractor for Microsoft had built the tool using open source components without telling anyone. The company later apologized and will reissue the software shortly with full source code to comply with the GPL.

Today, Techcrunch has another similar story. We do not yet have all the details, but it seems like Microsoft China decided to build itself a Twitter competitor for the local market to compete with the small (but popular) startup Plurk. So what did they do? According to the report on Techcrunch, they copied the design almost verbatim and then copied many of the code too. I mean, why stop at the design?

Now it’s obvious Microsoft inc. did not issue a directive to all employees to start stealing code left and right. The problem here though, is that it’s the kind of thing that’s really hard to manage when you have over 35 000 employees in several countries around the world. God, when I managed my team of 6-8 programmers here in Montreal, it was sometime hard to see if one of them wasn’t screwing things up, so it’s easy to imagine managing 35 000 employees in this regard being incredibly hard.

Interestingly, Apple has not yet been accused of this kind of thing, so perhaps the company does manage to do a better QA or code revision on everything that’s sent out? There are pluses and minuses to mandatory code reviews (and certainly, many programmers dislike the idea) but this is one area where perhaps it would help. Then again, Microsoft most certainly does code review for its main products (Windows, Office, etc.), but how do you ensure everything is A-OK in China where some mid-level manager might just decide using a competitor’s code is good enough. Deadline, you know?

The scary part as I said is that in my 12 years as a programmer, lead developer, team leader and tech leader for various businesses, I’ve seen similar problem creep up from time to time in what can only describe as very small projects. How do you manage the unmanageable? Maybe the solution is to simple accept that inevitability and react once you get caught.

Unlocked & Unsubsidized, The Future of Cell Phones

While I’m a big geek and a guy who loves coding many hours everyday, I’ve been spending a lot of time on this blog talking about business. I love business aspect of technology and it’s obvious there’s a lot going on and it’s sometime worthwhile to analyze things a bit.

Techcrunch has an interesting post on long-rumored (and hopefully soon to be released) official Google phone. The parallels to Apple are quite interesting. When Apple first came out with an “iTunes phone”, they went to Motorola to create it and it ended up being a mixed bag. Not a terrible product, but clearly not Apple’s vision. The next logical step was obvious and from that the iPhone was born.

When the iPhone was first released, Apple decided to try and change the way the industry worked by selling the phone unsubsidized. It worked pretty well, sales-wise, but obviously Apple released that selling a 600$ (or even 400$ phone limits the number of people who will buy your phone compared to a 99$ phone.

With its first in-house phone, Google is taking a similar route and going one (important) step further : according to Techcrunch they will sell the phone unlocked and will forgo the carrier. Buy the device, insert your sim card and you’re good to go. It’s something I was hoping Apple would do and it’s clear that AT&T in the US hasn’t been the best of partner for Apple. If Google does succeed with this plan, hopefully it’ll pave the way for Apple and others to follow suit.

It’s interesting to see the newcomers in the telecommunication industry change the way things work. The iPhone has done quite the revolution with regards to user interface and acceptance of the smart phone for the general public and hopefully Google will be able to make even more changes to get that industry to be a little bit more user friendly.

Forget Market share, It’s All About Mindshare

When you think about it, Apple’s place in the tech industry is a bit weird. Even before the iPod took the MP3 player market lead and at the same time helped Apple go from fledging computer company to tech industry leader, Apple has always been included in almost every tech discussions. Even today, with both the iPod and the iPhone being huge successes, Apple has managed to keep its Mac computers in the news despite the smallish market share.

Same with Safari on Windows really. Whatever Apple does these days, it will be discussed, it will be analyzed and it will bring about both very ardent fans and very ardent detractors. Contrast this with a new computer released by HP or Dell and you’ll understand why mindshare is what matters.

Apple has always done things differently. “Think Different” was their slogan for a while and it certainly applies to what Apple does, even to this day. When Apple updates its online store, the store goes offline for a few hours. When they release major new products or major updates to a product, Apple invites journalists to a special event. When Apple created the Mighty Mouse, they ceded on the 2 buttons issue but still did it their own way by having a 1 button mouse with a sensor. When Apple created the iTunes App Store, instead of going the open route, the company decided to control everything that goes on sale. Instead of using Linux or Windows, Apple has its own operating system and for a long time was using its own special CPU architecture.

Why? I don’t know the answer to that for sure, but I can certainly say that it’s been working to their advantage for many years now. Since they never do things like everybody else, whatever they do is discussed. There’s no doubt the Droid is a very good phone, but other than “can it beat the iPhone” stories, it hasn’t come close to getting the kind of attention the iPhone gets. Dell is a very big company that has had a lot of successes, but they release stuff that many other companies release and they do so the way many other companies do. The result? They get the same “normal” coverage and buzz everyone else get.

With the success its had in the past 10-12 years, Apple will no doubt be studied for a while in business classes around the world. Hopefully people will understand what it is that make Steve’s company a different beast. Apple may only have 5-12% market share worldwide, but it doesn’t really matter. They are winning the mindshare war, and that’s what will matter in the long run.

Lessons From The Game Industry : Innovation Fails

While I’m a programmer first and foremost, I’ve spent years working in small agencies where you need to find money or you’re out of a job. Now that I’m on my own as the owner of Techniconseils, I still love to analyze business trends and see where things are going. Today’s post is about the game industry and the lessons we can learn from it.

Just like anything else, that industry has been hit hard by the current recession but there’s something fairly interesting that’s happened over the last few years. In that industry, there are 2 huge publishers, Electronic Arts and Activision. For several years up until about 2 years ago, EA was known as the “evil” one because it kept rehashing game ideas and coming up with sequels years after years. About 2 years ago the John Riccitiello (a former CEO) came back and decided to change things around and make EA a more innovative company, betting that the new titles would outsell the sequels.

Around the same time, Activision decided to go the other way and pump out sequels at an alarming rate. Innovative games like Guitar Hero went from cool game to major franchise with 2-3 releases a year. Activision now treats any game as a franchise and if your game is not something they can pump out every year then it’s not a game they want.

As with everything, you have to balance the “right thing” versus the business decision. Today, after 2 years, it seems clear that EA’s strategy of supporting new franchises and new innovative games has mostly fail. Contrast the huge successes of Guitar Hero and Call of Duty with the very slow sales of EA’s Mirror Edge, Dead Space and Brutal Legend and you get a better understanding of why EA had to lay off 1500 people this year.

So what does that mean for us indie developers? Does that apply to the iPhone market for example? Well, it could be argued that coming up with Tap Tap Revolution 3 is probably a safer bet than a completely new game. As an indie developer, my first instinct is always to do the right thing, but there’s no denying that perhaps the right business decision is not always the “right thing” to do.

How do you balance your business decisions?