Category Archives: General

Daring Fireball: Dazzling Results

It’s amazing how some people can just not get it when it comes to Apple in particular, and the technology industry in general.

John Gruber tends to get it, which he demonstrates in this post dismantling someone clearly doesn’t get it. I’m going to be lazy and rather than carefully selecting some quotes to comment on, I’m going to post pretty much excerpt pretty much the whole thing and interject my own commentary here and there.

Juan Pablo Vazquez Sampere, writing for Harvard Business Review, “We Shouldn’t Be Dazzled by Apple’s Earnings Report”:

But one thing has changed. Apple used to revolutionize industries, announcing record sales numbers because it had introduced a new technology, feature, or product that we had never imagined but that, when we saw it, we all instantly wanted. That Apple seems no longer present. In this instance, all Apple has done is copy a feature for its own best customers. While that’s very effective for today, it does not solve the problem of tomorrow for a company that competes on serial innovation.

That one feature he’s talking about is the larger display sizes for the iPhone 6. I’ll reiterate that Apple has never been a company that serially produced revolutionary product after revolutionary product. Their revolutions have been very few and far between: Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone/iPad. Everything else is constant iteration and refinement.

Exactly right. Revolutionary products come when the industry as a whole gets lazy and slow.

The Macintosh built on innovations created at Xerox PARC (along with plenty of Apple’s own) that Xerox had failed to capitalize on.

I’d argue that the iPod took advantage of a series of incremental changes to the technology and media landscape that the incumbent players had neglected to take advantage of. The music labels shunned online distribution, I think, in part, because they couldn’t make it work on their own, and didn’t trust Microsoft enough to work with them. On the other side, the Wintel duopoly didn’t have the chops to make a true consumer oriented product, and the PC OEMs they held in their orbit couldn’t pull it off either.

Apple wasn’t ready for it either, not at first. They needed to get their own house in order before they could pull off the iPod, but once they did, their ability to launch the iTunes music store was primed by the desperation of the music industry for a partner that could give them a path into the future.

I’d suggest that Apple’s opportunity to do something revolutionary with the iPhone came because of the conservatism of Blackberry, Microsoft’s habit as a fast-follower, rather than an innovator, and Palm’s decline.

If there is a steady pace of innovation, often leavened by some competition, the sorts of holes that you can launch a Mac, an iPod, an iPhone, or even an iPad into just don’t exist. Constant steady improvement carry’s the day.

So I’d argue Sampere is provably1 wrong on Apple’s history. And it seems doubly weird to publish this two months before Apple Watch is set to hit. Potentially, Apple Watch is clearly another “we had never imagined but that, when we saw it, we all instantly wanted” product.

I would also argue that Apple’s record-shattering results last quarter are remarkable. Not because the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are revolutionary, because they’re not. But because it shows that design can matter in the mass market. For decades the industry’s conventional wisdom held that design wasn’t important. The industry’s leaders created shitty software and shitty hardware. Apple’s success has upended the industry’s value system. Almost all of Apple’s competitors value design more today than they did a decade ago: Microsoft, Google, Samsung, HP — all of them.

Indeed, and the industry leaders created shitty software and shitty hardware because they weren’t selling to individual end-users, they were selling to IT managers, and CIOs.

There’s no reason to buy an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus other than because you’re willing to pay a premium for superior hardware and software quality. And last quarter 74 million people around the world did just that.

As its products evolve, Apple pours ever more effort into incremental improvements in the details. The bigger displays are the most noticeable differences in the iPhones 6, but everything else was improved too: the camera is better, both in terms of speed and image quality; the CPU is faster; the GPU is faster; battery life is better; the display quality is better; Touch ID is better. And then there’s Apple Pay.

Most of these are things that Clayton Christensen and his acolytes would call sustaining disruptions, and then there is Apple Pay. I’m not sure what to think of Apple Pay. To be clear, I think it will be huge, but part of the reason it will be huge is because it does such a good job of accommodating all the various players in the payment chain. Such accomodations usually require either a great deal of duress (like the dire straits of the music industry when Apple arranged iTMS), or a lot of kowtowing that ends up leaving an opportunity for something truly disruptive. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a middle road, but it remains to be seen how Apple Pay plays out.

Again, none of those improvements are revolutionary. But it’s a solid list of year-over-year improvements, and the results show that consumers agree. The most telling — dare I say dazzling — number Apple revealed last week wasn’t the number of iPhones they sold during the quarter, but the price people paid for them. Average selling price went up year-over-year, in an industry where average selling prices are going down.

A fundamentaist Christensen Disruptionist, will know that an excessive focus on average selling price (ASP) is what ends up leading innovators astray, leaving them vulnerable to disruption from below. Of course, Apple’s success in the computer market is a reminder that a company with a rising ASP in a market where ASP is otherwise trending downward isn’t necessarily doomed.

The problem isn’t that Apple has changed. The problem is that Apple has not changed, and their continuing success is proving that conventional disruption theory does not apply to consumer-driven markets in which outstanding design and integration (as opposed to modularity) can drive demand.

I’d suggest that there are two important factors that fundamentalist disrupptionists ignore at their peril. The first, is, as Gruber notes, that consumer markets are different from B2B markets. The other is that a lot of disruption theory focused not just on B2B markets for high-tech, they did so at a time when those markets were still on the long climb to reaching global scale, a time when computing was relatively precious, when Microsoft’s vision was a computer on every desk.  Now, many have one on their desk, another in their bag, one in their pocket, and one in their living room. Other parts of the world aren’t so well served, but mobile phones are widespread, and are being quickly followed by smart phones, and inexpensive PCs are spreading as well.

Apple is disrupting the conventional tenets of business even more than they are any particular product category in consumer electronics. There is something fascinating — in several ways unprecedented — going on with Apple right now. Rather than study it, understand it, describe it, and teach it, Sampere2 has chosen to deny that it’s happening.3

via Daring Fireball: Dazzling Results.

When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think disruption theory was a very useful tool for exploring business dynamics, and it remains so, but it is merely an imperfect attempt to model the world. I think that the mistakes Clayton Christensen and his acolytes make in understanding Apple, and the failed predictions they’ve produced to date, are, unfortunately, being repeated as the try to mis-apply the theory to other spheres, like education.

Intel thinks your gadgets need a bowl of their own.

For years, people have been “recharging” with a bowl after a long, hard day. Soon, their electronics devices, will be able to do the same, thanks to Intel’s Humboldt County product design studio.

If it ships at the end of year, as expected, Intel’s charging bowl will be the first product from Intel’s Northern California outpost to make it to market since it was opened in 1972, just a few short years after Intel’s own founding in 1968.

When we asked about the long gestation period, Randy Redwood, a senior vice-pesident of consumer product development, replied that they’d pursued a number of important initiatives in the past forty years. “Some of them were fuckin’ killer, man,” then, after a long pause, Mr. Redwood continued, “…but they didn’t work out…such a bummer… WHAT, oh yeah, carmel corn. Excuse me, I gotta get to the cafeteria before they run out of carmel corn.”

Rapidics Accelerates my Machine Learning Learning

rapidics-header2For the past week or so, I’ve been digging into the topic of machine learning. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I’ve done some reading on the subject, and collected links to informational resources and open source tools for years, but I long ago reached the point of diminishing returns, where I either needed to start actually experimenting with it on my own, or otherwise needed a specific reason to learn more.

Thanks to a chance meeting at a coffee shop, I now have the latter. Mark Seligman of Rapidics has helped me understand more about the application of machine mearning techniques. What I find particularly interesting is that Mark and his company are in the business of providing machine learning infrastructure. They are doing some of the heavy lifting to help make machine learning easier and more useful for others to use by taking a generally applicable algorithm called Random Forest and creating a solid, fast multicore implementation called Arborist that can work with the popular, open source, R statistical computing package. By doing so, they’ve achieved major speedups over the standard R implementation, and efficiency and scaling advantages over many of the coarse-grained approaches to speeding up R on parallel hardware.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that they’ve sped things up enough that it could fundamentally change the way people use Random Forest for machine learning, while at the same time making it useful to people who haven’t even heard of machine learning today. That makes the subject triply interesting to me, because I’m learning about machine learning and getting to think about infrastructure and user experience.

So, thanks to Mark, and his partner Mark, for the education!

2013 Apple WWDC Reactions

I’ve been skimming over the coverage of the keynote presentation at Apple’s WWDC and I thought I’d post some of my reactions:

  • New “Mavericks” branding of OS X releases is interesting. I didn’t know the significance of the name until I read that they’ll be naming releases after inspiring places in California. Mavericks is a surfing spot on Half Moon Bay, CA. I find this to be an interesting way to reinforce the ongoing “Designed by Apple in California” message, particularly since they are planning to start manufacturing one or more products in the US again.
  • 575,000,000 accounts with credit card info on file. That is huge.
  • $10 B paid to app developers, $5B in the past year:  Nice, clearly there is still a lot of opportunity for Apple developers.
  • Demo of AnkiDrive, Bluetooth remote control cars by an independent developer: Taken together with the last detail, the message I take is that “indie” hardware makers are foolish to ignore the Apple ecosystem.
  • Finder Tabs & Tags sound good.
  • Better multi-monitor support sounds great (and overdue). Might be enough to get me using my 24″ monitor again.
  • Compressed Memory:  Interesting to see old ideas make a return. 15 years ago, RAM Doubler did the same thing, and more recently, a compressed VM backing store made a reappearance in Linux recently. I’m curious about whether this will breathe some more life into my wife’s old MacBook Pro which is limited to 6GB of memory, not enough with multitab web browsing.
  • Timer Coalescing & App Nap for backgrounded Safari Tabs. Anything to improve battery life is great, and Safari is an excellent target. Most background CPU usage on my machine tends to be web pages.
  • iCloud Keychain I wonder if this will work between Chrome on the desktop (which uses the OSX keychain) and Mobile Safari
  • Maps on OS X Nice, how about bringing it to the web too, please?
  • Overall it looks like Mavericks is another big step in making our computing environment seamless across Mac, iPhones and iPads. This is something that is harder for others to compete with. Samsung doesn’t have a real desktop presence. Google is trying, but they can’t reap the benefits of tight hardware integration. Microsoft could do it, but its marketshare in phones and tablets is smaller than Apple’s marketshare in the traditional PC market.
  • General release of Mavericks is this fall. I’m looking forward to it.
  • MacBook Air sounds like a nice upgrade, and the bump up to 802.11ac networking sounds good too.
  • Mac Pro a cylinder?!?!?!
  • External expansion?!?!? via Thunderbolt 2 (six of them!). I don’t think I like that if I were the intended customer. Whether or not I’d want to stuff extra cards into the case, the ability to stuff a bunch of disks inside is nice.  On the other hand, this should give a boost to the market for Thunderbolt peripherals.
  • No Intel Xeon Phi: Oh well. I thought Apple might offer a MacPro with ridiculous performance on multithreaded x86 apps. They did, however, stuff in two dual-OpenCL capable AMD FirePro GPUs in addition to a 12 core Intel CPU.
  • Tiny compared to the old MacPro, 1/8th the volume.
  • Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in the USA.
  • 300 million iCloud accounts: An impressive number, if only iCloud it sucked less.
  • iCloud version of iWork allows editing in the cloud. Not bad!
  • 600 million iOS devices sold.  That seems like a lot.
  • 93% of iOS users on on latest OS.  Very good, and a datapoint one could use in estimating what % of those 600 million devices sold are still in use.
  • iOS 7… Ok, so the notifications panel looks Windows Phone-like to me…
  • Control Center looks nice and useful. I still don’t see why it is so essential to have quick access to WiFi and Bluetooth settings, but I might feel differently if I was getting on planes multiple times per week.
  • Adaptive background app scheduling and push notifications to update apps in background (I initially misunderstood this later features as App store updates). Background processing comes to all iOS apps!
  • Automatic background app-store updates. Continuous deployment comes to iOS apps. I wonder if developers will be able to do staged deployments…
  • Mobile Safari.  I like the new tab switching!
  • AirDrop for sharing with other nearby iOS device users. Nice. It is a bit surprising it has taken them so long to enable this. Yes, some android phones have been able to do this sort of thing for a while, but this is a situation where the uniformity of the iOS ecosystem works in Apple’s favor.
  • Not supported on the iPhone 4s. Bah. The implication is that this is a hardware limitation. If that isn’t true, it seems like a stupid limitation to impose since the value of AirDrop increases exponentially with the number of people who have devices that support it.
  • Photos app. Nice to see Apple making improvements in this area, even if it includes some of the ideas we came up with for Wideangle. They seem to be missing an important use case though that Wideangle has also forsaken so-far. I’d tell you more, but, well, I can’t.
  • PhotoStreams become multi-user. It is about damn time, really. Question is, whether they can take some ground from Facebook…
  • Siri can control bluetooth, brightness. Can she trigger airplane mode, or would that be suicidal (Siri needs an internet connection)?
  • Bing search results in Siri! If I’m understanding this correctly, Apple has added web search results to the range of options it weighs in Siri, rather than making it a fall-through of last-resort like it is today. Oh, and they aren’t using Google…
  • iOS integration with automobiles: Looks nice, particularly the maps feature. Another reason why Apple and Google divorced over maps. What if I could just install a iPad mini in my dash though…
  • Location specific app recommendations. Cool idea.
  • iRadio, free, with ads, or without ads as part of iTunes Match. Nice.
  • Remote device lock for lost/stolen phones. On the one hand, I hate that my iOS devices are centrally controlled to such an extent. On the other hand, this has to be a major deterrent to device thieves.
  • Audio-only FaceTime: A further step toward commoditizing the mobile carriers. This is a feature where market share matters.
  • 1500 new APIs, including iBeacons for Bluetooth LE location.  Hmm. I’d like to hear more, but I guess that is what the rest of WWDC is for…
  • Final release this fall…
  • And that’s it. No killer new product category. The whining pundits will have something to keep themselves busy for a while. I think though that Apple understands their business better than most of the commentators…