Archive for the ‘Trends’ Category

This is certainly a belated post. I have been meaning to write it for many months but kept getting distracted. CES came and went with little that was earth shattering but a lot that was incremental. TV’s are more connected than ever while also getting bigger and thinner. Computers are slimmer and faster. The Macbook Air line is finally getting some serious competition but the pricing appears to be less than stellar. Here is a case where the Apple tax may be less than people suspect. SSD’s are slowly replacing hard drives and SSD speeds continue to increase. If you haven’t replaced your main hard drive with an SSD then you are in for a treat along with the concomitant blow to your wallet. Tablets are rushing forward. Vastly lower pricing should open tablets up to many more people and cause Android market share to surge. NFC is moving forward and uses are expanding. By 2013 I expect most top end smartphones will support NFC and that includes Apple.

There was, however, one area that brought a small amount of excitement – automotive. I have blogged before about Ford and their moves forward. There is a summary of the automotive announcements at Engadget so I won’t repeat a lot of it here. In general, phones, especially the iPhone, are being better integrated into automobiles and the move towards running apps on the automobile’s systems gets closer to reality. Right now most apps are proprietary but their numbers are increasing. Automobiles are getting more tightly connected to the web with the ability to send data between car and home. Back in 2009 GM and Ford announced that they intended to build Android cars. Here it is 2012 and we are still waiting but things are moving forward. The Chinese are there with the Roewe 350. Ford, GM, Mercedes et. al. are moving closer. In the end transparency of use and data will prevail and the automobile will merge seamlessly with the phone, TV and tablet.

I just finish talking to a friend and mentioned my last post. As we discussed it I realized it was about the individual engineer. Missing was how the concept of “good enough” affects business. That was a very big omission on my part. It’s time to fix that mistake.

When it comes to business, the idea of being “good enough” has a huge impact on decision making and the future of companies. This is best illustrated by discussing an area I am intimately familiar with – the semiconductor business. Imagine you are running the fictitious company GPScom. GPScom makes the world’s best GPS chips. They are WAAS and LAAS capable, very sensitive, and simply the best GPS chips by far. They own the personal navigation device, PND, market along with being in most other GPS based devices. However, companies like Broadcom and Qualcomm start producing mobile phone chipsets with relatively poor GPS receivers in them. These chipsets have only basic GPS circuitry that lacks not only LAAS but WAAS. They aren’t very sensitive and the GPS might say you are in the parking lot when you are really in a cafe having a bowl of soup. The problem is, these receivers are mostly good enough. With proper software the mobile phone becomes a decent navigation device. Furthermore, after a couple of generations, these phone chipsets have GPS receivers that are more than good enough. Since they are integrated into the mobile phone chipset they burn less power, take less precious board real estate and cost less. This means they do a better job of meeting the needs of the consumer. The PND market begins to fade as mobile phones take it over. This is happening today. GPScom engineers can tell themselves all day long how their circuitry is superior. The problem is that sales, and hence revenue, are going to Broadcom and Qualcomm. GPScom will have to either diversify, get acquired, or watch itself become less and less relevant until it fades into the sunset.

As an area of technology moves forward there gets to be a tipping point when what can be put into a CMOS chip is good enough. At that point the technology gets integrated and becomes part of a bigger solution. Companies that fail to recognize this risk becoming irrelevant. This is why the idea of “good enough” isn’t just about the individual engineer. It affects core business strategy. Every company needs to be worried that their area of core competency will evolve to the point where “good enough” marginalizes their value. These companies must either diversify so that they make the chips with the broader functionality, acquire technology that can be integrated in, or get acquired themselves. Is your company aware of just what “good enough” is when it comes to their specialty areas or does hubris cloud their thinking?

Cliches exist because they contain truth in an easy to digest form. There’s an old saying among engineers. “Anyone can build a bridge. It takes a good engineer to do it on time and under budget.”  That one holds the essence of why I consider good engineering more difficult to accomplish than good science. My formal training was as a scientist. I have been around scientific research in both the theoretical and experimental areas and I certainly appreciate the difficulties involved. However, it is the imposition of schedule and budget into engineering that makes it even more difficult than good science. Budget doesn’t just apply to the resources involved in the creation of the item but also involves the cost of manufacture. Great engineering means understanding “Just good enough.” Like many topics in this blog the concept of “Just good enough” is much broader and more important than many people think. It is related to the concept of quality. In his book Quality is Free, Philip Crosby defines quality as “conformance to requirements.” Great engineering meets the customer’s needs in the best manner. Best, in most cases, means finding a solution the customer can afford. For this reason designing a mid sized sedan like the Honda Accord is much more difficult than designing something like a Ferrari Italia. The Accord is in a much more competitive space and has tremendous budget constraints. If you want to upgrade the audio system then you have to find cost savings elsewhere. Many thousands of components have characteristics that must be traded off in order to meet the target price-point. The Ferrari design starts by asking “What’s best?” Just for fun, when it comes to the Accord, you get to layer on tougher customer expectations. The Accord isn’t a showpiece. It is a day-to-day working automobile and must perform perfectly for many years with few service needs. The Ferrari is expected to require some pampering. Even several year old Ferraris usually have just a few thousand miles on them. The Accord is a much tougher design challenge.

One engineer I admire is Steve Wozniak. If you look at the Apple II, the computer that made Apple a real company, you find many examples of awesome engineering. Again and again features are included and performance is achieved with elegant rather than brute force design. The result was a great combination of features at a reasonable price for its day. To highlight what I mean by “just good enough” I am going to single out just one of the many elegant design choices in the Apple II; but first I need to set the stage.

The personal computing era was kicked off in 1975 with the January issue of Popular Electronics. The cover article was on the construction of a computer kit called the MITS Altair 8800. With it came the introduction of the S100 bus. The Altair 8800 was a frame style design where cards were added to increase functionality. While many functions such as main memory have moved to the motherboard, we retain this expansion concept today although the S100 bus has mostly moved into history.

The Altair 8800 was copied by many companies and expanded upon. The S100 bus became an industry standard expansion bus. Lots of companies made cards for the S100 bus. Because of this a lot of computers placed only the basics on the motherboard in an effort to control price. There are problems with this approach. Since there was no game controller (joystick, paddle, buttons) functionality included in the Altair, there was no standardized game interface. I once looked at the cost of adding joysticks to an S100 based computer. The card alone was several hundred dollars. The approach involved expensive analog to digital converters (ADCs). The result was that only keyboard based games evolved for the S100 based machines.

During this time, games like Pong and Breakout were popular. It made sense to bring them to personal computers but they required interactive game controllers i.e. paddles or joysticks. A keyboard used as a controller lacked the same smooth interactivity. Using the keyboard for games was a compromise aimed at satisfying the engineers and accountants and not the customers but it was a compromise most computer manufacturers had adopted. Enter Apple and a few others. In 1977 Apple introduced the Apple II. It came with game paddles along with games like Breakout. To accomplish this in a cost effective manner, Wozniak pushed most of the design into software. Since he had designed Breakout in hardware for Atari, this was a big change in mindset. Great engineers adopt what is best as opposed to just reworking what they did in the past. Simplifying hardware and pushing complexity into software would turn out to be a very important trend. Here was that trend at a very early stage. Look at the schematic below.

This is part of the schematic of the Apple II included in the Apple II Reference Manual dated January 1978. What looks like a 553 integrated circuit (H13) is actually a 558. This is a quad version of the venerable 555 timer chip. The 558 is used to generate four paddle, or two joystick, inputs. Each paddle is just a variable resistor. Hooked into the 558, the resistance of the paddle controller determines the oscillation frequency of a simple RC oscillator. A loop in the code keeps reading the oscillator. The microprocessor can only read a 1 or a 0. If the voltage is above a certain level the microprocessor sees a 1. Below that it sees a 0. The Apple II loops while looking at the game paddle input. By looking at the pattern, for example 111000111000111000, it can determine the frequency of oscillation. This is then related to a game paddle position and the screen paddle is moved to the appropriate screen position. The beauty of this is that the paddle controller doesn’t have to be super linear. The paddles just need to be consistent i.e. all paddles need to act the same way. Nonlinearities can be corrected in software. To the user, using visual feedback as he looks at the screen while turning the paddle, this is all “just good enough.” It is also a high quality solution since it meets the user’s expectations and the requirements for playing games like Breakout. Including games and controllers gave the Apple II great consumer appeal and was a big part of its success and with it the success of Apple Computer.

Today we often see companies just iterating on a theme. These are the so-so companies. Great companies sit back, look at the bigger picture and think about possibilities. Rather than layering expensive, iterative solutions on each other, the great companies rethink the approach and create solutions that are cost effective while meeting user requirements. Exceptional companies go beyond this and create solutions to user requirements that the user didn’t know he had. That, however, is a topic for another post.

I mentioned that Mango showed that Microsoft could come on strong once they recognized they were behind. I saw a few unexpected features in Mango and it gave me hope that Microsoft was still in the game if very far behind. However, with the release of more information about Windows 8, I am truly surprised. Microsoft really gets it. They see the need for a unified OS across platforms and for a transparent user experience. Furthermore, Microsoft is using its strength on the desktop to leverage itself into the tablet and phone space. This isn’t my pick for the easiest path in general but it is the easiest and best way for Microsoft. More than other releases, Windows 8 will be about an aggressive business strategy. I love it when business, the consumer, and engineering mesh at such an intimate level.

Windows 8 is important on several levels. First, let’s start with the fact that it will not only run on X86 CPU’s but on ARM. Wow! Let that sink in. This means Windows on a CPU that isn’t compatible with the Intel X86 architecture. There will be no emulation layer so current X86 apps won’t run on ARM based hardware. However, this is important in and of itself. Microsoft will be encouraging developers writing lighter apps to write in Java and HTML5 so the apps will be independent of the CPU used. Add this to Apple toying with the idea of an ARM based MacBook Air and you know why Intel is nervous.

The next surprise is the breadth of Windows 8. It is really a tablet  OS where the mouse and keyboard can substitute for touch. You read that correctly. The OS is, in many ways, a tablet OS first and a desktop OS second. This doesn’t mean a compromised desktop OS. What it does mean is an OS with touch infused throughout.  The same OS will run on tablets, laptops and desktops.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and the next surprise is best illustrated with a couple of pictures. Here is one of Windows 8 on a PC:

Next I have a picture of the home screen from a phone running Windows Phone.

Do you see what I am excited about? Just like Apple, Microsoft is making the desktop OS look and feel like the phone OS. Do you believe me now when I talk about the push for transparency of the computing experience? Now go back to the comment above about Microsoft pushing for apps written in HTML5 and Java. Those will be easy to port to Windows Phone and vice versa. Microsoft may be late but they are coming on strong.

What does this mean on the business side? Obviously the push onto ARM is a threat to Intel and AMD. In terms of the other hardware and software players here is how I see it. RIM is in an increasingly bad position. They have zero desktop presence and Microsoft is stronger in the corporate world than RIM. Windows 8 might seem independent of RIM’s Blackberry world but, in actuality, it has the potential to do great damage. HP may take a hit too. They are betting a lot on WebOS. I don’t see what the value add is for WebOS. Call this one more wait and see but be skeptical. HP could quickly shift to being Windows 8 centric if need be. Heck, they are Windows centric today.  Apple probably fairs OK in the near term. Longer term they might lose some of their momentum. However, I see Apple as the best positioned against Windows 8 if they can continue to move towards merging iOS and OSX. I’m still very strong on Apple. Next up for Apple is iOS 5 and iCloud which will be announced next week. Windows 8 could be problematic for Google. I have trouble believing in Chrome as a desktop OS. Google will still be ahead in the TV space but compared to Microsoft and Apple they lack the desktop. Android is the largest selling smartphone OS and we are about to be inundated with Android tablets including some excellent ones such as the Samsung 10.1. I still see Microsoft being behind Google but it is a lot more interesting than it was a day ago. Apple just made iWork available on the iPhone in addition to the iPad and OSX devices. Microsoft will have Office running across all devices. Will people buy into Google’s idea that web based solutions are the best answer for their productivity apps? People may but only if Microsoft screws things up. Then again, Microsoft mucked things up in the past with poorly conceived products like Works.

It may seem like I have been mostly regurgitating news. Look deeper. I am trying to point out the trends of convergence and transparency and how they are reaching everywhere. On the surface Google Wallet is a nice tweak to how you pay for what you buy. In terms of those affected it is easy to see the retailers, banks and credit card companies. If you look on the surface at semiconductor companies you might just think about those chips which enable NFC. This is part of something much bigger that affects many more companies. NFC services like Google Wallet will make transactions more transparent i.e. easier and more convenient. They also converge services into the phone and continue pushing the phone towards becoming your dominant computing platform. This is what I started this blog off with. It doesn’t matter if Google Wallet in it’s present form becomes big or not. It’s a symptom of a larger movement. No matter what business you are in you need to evaluate your strategy with convergence and transparency in mind. How will your business play out when the phone is the dominant computing platform? Intel and AMD are reacting to this today. For once the interests of AMD and Intel are aligned. They need to bring the X86 architecture to tablets and then mobile phones. Microsoft is also reacting as they worry about Windows being marginalized. Think how differently this would have been had the iPhone and iPad been based on the Atom processor. For the other chip companies there is the increasing importance of LTE and the cloud. Flash memory will continue to be pushed to grow in density and decrease in price. The world is moving towards one gigabyte of storage in the phone. Remember reading about how over built the global network is? Think again. OLED screens will finally become a mainstream technology driven by the phone. Eventually they will grow to be the dominant technology in both laptops and TV’s.  This shift affects media. The RIAA and  MPAA continue their vain attempts at protecting intellectual property rather than embracing the technology trends and profiting from them. That’s an entire blog (or two or three) in and of itself. Is your company preparing for the upcoming changes? More importantly, have you looked deep to see how convergence and transparency will change your business landscape?

Did Intel read my blog? Interesting posts about Intel here and here and here.

Of the Android tablets, the Xoom was the first to look reasonable but the iPad 2 made it look dated. The first real iPad 2 challenger appears to be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Don’t confuse this with the thicker 10.1v. Engadget has a good review here. They also have a review of the HTC Flyer posted here. While not as positive as the Galaxy Tab review, I think the integration of audio and notes on the Flyer has a lot of promise.

Does anyone else think Microsoft buying Nokia’s smartphone business is a bad idea? That would make Microsoft like Apple but still trying to be like Google. Pick an approach! If Microsoft tries to straddle the fence then they will fail. Why should HTC or anyone else make a Windows Mobile phone if their direct competition on the Windows Mobile space will be Microsoft. Microsoft could wind up being the sole manufacturer of Windows Mobile phones. At that point I give a big advantage to Apple.

I haven’t talked much about Chrome and the Chromebook. A good article on them is here.

If you are following what I am saying about transparency and convergence I suggest you read  Sarah Rotman Epps’ Blog.

If you have been following along with my comments on transparency you might think the only big prize is owning the phone market or the tablet market or both. There’s another prize that’s very big. To understand it you need to take a look at PayPal. When I am online I like it when PayPal is a payment option. I don’t have to pull out my credit card. I just have to remember my PayPal login and I can complete my desired purchase. What if every transaction in the US went through two or three companies? This would be like a super PayPal. It wouldn’t just be online transactions but local purchases such as groceries, gas, clothes and dining.

It’s time for some simple math fun. April 2011 retail sales in the US were approximately $390B. One percent of that is $3.9B. If a company could get a third of this it would be $1.3B. That’s per month or $3.9B per quarter. This is only for the US. How do you get 1% of every transaction? You make them flow through your device. With NFC, the phone is the gateway to your credit card. When watching TV,  think GoogleTV or Apple TV. What if all you needed was one account with Google or Apple and you could cover all of your bills using your phone or your TV? This makes iTunes look puny. Don’t kid yourself, both Google and Apple are eyeing this. I suspect Microsoft is too but they are a bit late.

Amazon, a company I haven’t mentioned till now, sees this  too. Their solution has been to be the central online shopping site. However, remember how the Germans went around the Maginot Line? Remember how I said Apple and Google were doing a similar end around on the Wintel alliance? We could have another end around play here. Imagine your phone being your main device for purchases i.e. replacing your credit card. Apple and Google could move in on Visa and Mastercard. Now that they have you funneling your purchases through them it’s a small step to begin guiding those purchases. Think Apple App Store on a huge scale. Think of the Google Market Place but selling more than apps. Both of these companies are sitting on large amounts of cash and looking for ways to turn that into even larger revenue and profits. What can Amazon do? They can take a clue from their Kindle line. I don’t own a Kindle. However, there are Kindle apps on my laptop, my desktop, my phone and my tablet. When I buy ebooks my first choice is through Amazon. I don’t buy through iBooks because iBooks isn’t as broadly cross platform as Kindle. It’s that old transparency of data thing again. By buying through Kindle (Amazon) I can read the book on all of my devices. I read them where I want, when I want, and on the device I want to use.  Amazon needs to be the one company that will allow both your Apple device and your Android device to use the same account. At all cost they need to make sure the various platforms are open enough to allow them to be the central clearinghouse for your purchases. The same can be said for Mastercard and Visa. Those two companies dominate the landscape right now. However, fundamental changes are afoot and that always spells opportunity for others. For the first time Visa and Mastercard are vulnerable.

When will this take place? No time in the near future as far as the general public will see. However, the initial steps are being taken now. At first you will just place your credit card information in your phone and use it instead of the physical card. This is only slightly different from having Amazon store your credit card information with your account. From there it’s a small step to add extras to the Apple and Google app stores. Finally, Apple or Google issue you the credit line and push Visa and Mastercard out. They will be able to do this by offering incentives from the savings generated by not shipping Mastercard or Visa 2%.