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CES 2015 Recap for Makers and Product Managers

X CES2015 - 32CES 2015 was another amazing show. Walking around the show one can only look with wonder about the amazing technologies being invented and turned into products. Few things are as energizing or re-energizing as systematically walking the booths and soaking it all in. I love CES as a reminder of the amazing opportunity to work in this industry.

Taking a moment to share what I walk away with is always helpful to me—writing is thinking. Every day we have the chance to talk to new companies about products under development and ideas being considered and CES provides a great cross-industry context about what is going on. This is especially important because of the tendency to look too much to the massive companies that might dominate our collective point of view. My experience has been that spending energy on what is going on CES unlocks potential opportunities by forcing you to think about problems and solutions from different perspectives.

While this post goes through products, there are many better sources for the full breadth of the show. I try to focus on the broader themes that I walk away with after spending a couple of days letting everything sort of bake for a bit. This year I wanted to touch on these 5 major themes and also include a traditional view of some of the more “fun” observations:

  • Batteries, wires, simplicity
  • Displays popping up everywhere
  • Cameras improving with Moore’s law
  • Sensors sensing, but early (and it’s all about the data)
  • Connectivity gaining ubiquity
  • Fun Products

Ever the product manager (PM) I try to summarize each of these sections with some top-line PM Learning to put the post into action.

Click on images for larger version. All photos by me unless noted.

Batteries, wireless, simplicity

PM Learning: Of course optimize your experiences to minimize impact on battery life, but don’t assume your competitors will be doing the same. Think about the iPhone OS and built in apps navigating that fine line. In you’re making new hardware, assume standard connectors for charging betting on Type-C and HDMI.

The best place to start with CES is batteries and wires, because that’s what will follow you around the entire show—everyone walks the show floor in search of outlets or with an auxiliary battery and cable hanging off their phone. Batteries created the portable consumer electronics revolution, but we’re also tethered to them far too often. The good news is that progress is real and continues to be made.

Behind the scenes a great deal of progress is being made on power management with chipsets even wireless ones. On display at the show were Bluetooth keyboards can go a year on a single charge or wireless headphones are good for days of normal usage.

Progress is also being made on battery technology that is making it possible for smaller, lighter, and faster charging batteries. While these are not dramatic 2 or 3X improvements, they are real.

The first product I saw was an LG cordless vacuum that had 70 minutes of usage and the cleaning power passing the classic bowling ball suction test. Truly something that makes everything easier.

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Batteries are an important part of transportation and Panasonic is the leading manufacturer right now of large-scale batteries for transport. On display was the GoGoRo urban scooter. This is not just a battery-operated scooter that can go 95 km/h and is cloud connected with GPS locator maps. It can go 100km on a pair of batteries. All that would be enough. But the batteries can be swapped out in seconds and you’re on the go. The company plans to build a network of charge stations to go with a business model of subscription. I love this whole concept.

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Panasonic also makes batteries for the Tesla so here is a gratuitous picture of the gratuitous Tesla Model X on display.

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While all consumer electronics have aimed for simplicity since the first blinking 12:00 on a VCR, simplicity has been elusive due to the myriad of cables, connectors, remotes, and adapters. Normally a CES trip report would include the latest in cable management, high tech cables, or programmable remotes. Well, this year it is fair to say that these whole categories have basically been subsumed in a wave of welcome simplicity.

Cables, to the degree they are needed, have mostly been standardized on HDMI for video and USB for charging and peripherals. With the forthcoming USB Type-C even USB will be standardized. The Apple connectors are obviously all over though easily adapted to micro-USB for now (note to makers of third party batteries—margins are tight, but using a MFI logo and an Apple cable end would be welcome). When you do need cables they are getting better. It was great to see an awesome fiber-optic cable from Corning that worked for USB (also displayport). It makes the cable much thinner and more flexible along with increasing the signal travel distance since it uses active powered ends. HDMI in the works.

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While most attention went into Smart Watches with too many features, Casio’s latest iteration offered a new combination of better battery life and low power radios. The new watch uses solar charging along with a GPS receiver (and also the low power radio waves) to set the time based on location. And it is not even huge.

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Bringing this theme is no wires and improved batteries to a new extreme, the wireless earbuds from Bragi are aggressive in the feature set by incorporating not just BT for audio but a microphone for talking and sensors for heart rate (though not likely very reliable) and temperature (not sure of the use as a practical matter). But certainly worth looking at when they are available. Photo by Bragi.

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Displays popping up everywhere

PM Learning: Curved is here. Too much energy is going into this. Expect to find new scenarios (like signage) and thus new opportunities. Resolution at 4K and beyond is going to be normal very quickly and with a price premium for a very short time. Pay close attention to web page design on high resolution and high DPI (assets). Many opportunities will exist for new screens that will run one app in a fixed function manner for line of business or in consumer settings—these are replacing static signs or unmanageable PCs. We’re on the verge of broadly deployed augmented reality and totally soft control screen layouts, starting with cars.

More than anything, CES continues to be the show about TV.

Curved screens are getting a lot of attention and a lot of skepticism, some of which is warranted. Putting them in an historical context, each generation of screen innovation has been greeted in a similar manner. Whether too expensive, too big, too incremental, or just not useful the reasons a new screen technology wasn’t going to take off have been plentiful. While curved seems weird to most of us (and frankly even maker is trying too hard to justify it, as seen in the pseudo scientific Samsung depictions below) it has compelling utility in a number of scenarios. Skeptics might be underestimating the architectural enthusiasm for the new screens as well.

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The most immediate scenario is one that could be called the “Bloomberg desktop” and here you can see it on display. It is very compelling as a single user, a “mission control” station, or as a group monitoring station.

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Signage is also incredibly important and the architectural use of curved screens as seen below will become relatively commonplace because of the value in having interactive and programmable displays for advertising and information.

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Speaking of signage, for years we’ve seen the gradual migration of printed signs to signage driven by PCs to even one year where all the screens were simply JPEGs being played in those ever-present photo frames. This year saw a number of compelling new signage products that combined new multi-screen layouts with web-based or app-based cloud platforms for creating dynamic layouts, incorporating data, and managing a collection of screens. Below we can see an example of an active menu display and the tool for managing it. Following that is a complex multi-screen 4K layout (narrow bezel) and associated tool.

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For home or entertainment, there were dozens of cinematic 21:9 4K curved screens at massive sizes. Maybe this transition will be slower (as the replacement cycle for TVs is slow anyway) due to the need for new thoughts on where to put these. This year at least was showing some wall mounting options.

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Curved screens are also making their way into small devices. Last year saw the LG Flex and an update was available this year. Samsung introduced a Galaxy Note Edge with a single curved edge. They went to great lengths in the software to use this as an additional notification band. I’m a bit skeptical of this as it was difficult to use without thinking hard about where to put your hand (at last in a booth minute of use).

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I don’t want to gloss over 4K, but suffice it to say every screen was 4K or higher. I saw a lot of skeptical coverage about not being able to see the difference or “how far away are you”. Let’s all just move on. The pixels are here and pretty soon it will just be as difficult to buy an HD display as it is to buy 512MB SIMMs or 80GB HDDs. That’s just how manufacturing at scale works. These screens will soon be cheaper than the ones they are replacing. Moore’s law applies to pixels too. For the skeptics, this exhibit showed how resolution works.

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Screens are everywhere and that’s the key learning this year. There were some awesome augmented reality displays that have been talked about for a long time but are quickly becoming practical and cost-effective. Below is a Panasonic setup that can be used to cosmetics either in store or in salon. It was really amazing to see.

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Continuing with augmented or head’s up displays, this was an amazing dashboard in a concept car from Toyota that showed off a full dash of soft-controls and integrated augmented screens.

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At a practical level, Sharp and Toshiba were both showing off ready-made dashboard screens that will make it into new cars as OEM components or as aftermarket parts.

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Cameras improving with Moore’s law

PM Learning: Cameras continue to gain more resolution but this year also showed a much clearer focus (ha) on improving photos as they are captured or improving video by making it smarter. Cameras are not just for image capture but also becoming sensors in their own right and integrated into sensing applications, though this is just starting. My favorite advance continues to be the march towards more high dynamic range as a default capture mode.

Digital cameras made their debut in the early 1990’s with 1MP still images that were broadly mocked by show attendees and reviews. Few predicted how Moore’s law would rapidly improve image quality while flash memory would become cost effective for these large CCDs and then mobile phones would make these sensors ubiquitous. Just amazing to think about.

High Dynamic Range started off as a DSLR trick and then something you could turn on and is now an Auto feature on most phones. In cameras it is still a bit of a trick. There are complexities in capturing moving images with HDR that can be overcome. Some find the look of HDR images to be “artificial” but in reality they are closer to the human eye range—this feels a bit like the debate during the first music CDs v. vinyl. Since the human eye has anywhere from 2 to 5 times the range of today’s sensors it only makes sense to see this more and more integrated into the core capture scenario. Below is a Panasonic 4K professional video camera with HDR built in.

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Facility security is a key driver of camera technology because of the need for wide views, low light, and varying outdoor conditions. A company that specializes in time-lapse imaging (for example construction sites) introduced a time-lapsed HDR camera.

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Low light usually kicks in infrared cameras in security settings. For many the loss of color has always been odd. Toshiba was showing off the first 720P infrared camera that generates a color image even in 0 Lux. This is done using software to map to a colorized palette. You can see a traditional infrared and the color version side by side in a cool interactive booth.

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In thinking about cameras as ubiquitous, this very clever camera+LED bulb combination really struck me. Not only is it a standard PAR LED bulb, but it adds a Wi-Fi web camera. Lots of potential uses for this.

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DSLRs still rule for professional use and their capabilities are still incredible (and should be for what you carry around). Nikon surprised even their folks in the booth by announcing their first Phase Fresnel lens with a 300mm f4. Cannon has a 400mm lens (their “DO” designation). These lenses result in remarkable (better) image quality and immense size and weight reduction. Seen below, is the classic 300mm f4 and the new “PF” version. Add to cart :-)

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Finally, Nikon repeated their display of 360-degree stop action Matrix-like photography. It is really am amazing demo with dozens of cameras snapping a single image providing a full walk around. Just love the technology.

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Sensors sensing, but early (and it is all about data!)

PM Learning: We are just starting on sensors. While many sensors are remarkably useful today, the products are still first generation and I believe we are in for an exponential level of improvement. For these reasons, I continue to believe that the wearable sensors out there today are interesting for narrow use cases but still at the early part of the adoption curve. Innovation will continue but for the time being it is important to watch (or drive the exponential) changes. Three main factors will contribute to this:

  1. Today’s sensors are usually taking one measurement (and often that is a proxy for what you want). These are then made into a single purpose product. The future will be more direct measurements as sensors get better and better. There’s much to be invented, for example, for heart rate, blood sugar, blood pressure, and so on.
  2. Sensors are rapidly improving in silos but will just as rapidly begin to be incorporated into aggregate units to save space, battery life, and more. There are obvious physical challenges to overcome (not every sensor can be in the same place or in contact with the same part of a body or device).
  3. Data is really the most important element and key differentiator of a sensor. It is not the absolute measurement but the way the measurement is put in context. The best way to think of this is that GPS was very useful but even more useful when combined with maps and even more useful when those maps add local data such as traffic or information on a destination.

Many are still working to bring gesture recognition to different scenarios. There remains some skepticism, perhaps rooted in the gamer world, but for many cases it can work extremely well. These capabilities can be built into cameras or depending on the amount of recognition into graphics chipsets. I saw two new and neat uses of gesture recognition. First, this LG phone was using a gesture to signal the start of a self-timer for taking selfies (just hold out your hand, recognize, squeeze, then timer starts). This was no selfie-stick (which I now carry around all the time due to the a16z selfie-stick investments) but interesting.

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This next demonstration was showing gestures used in front of an automobile screen. There were a lot of potential gestures shown in this proof of concept but still there are interesting possibilities.

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The incorporation of image recognition into the camera turns a camera into a sensor to be used for a variety of uses. This was a camera that ended up looking like the TV show Person of Interest.

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There were quite a few products demonstrating eye tracking. This is not a new technology but it has become very cheap very quickly. What used to take very specialized cameras can now be done with off the shelf parts and some processing. What are missing are use cases beyond software usability labs and medical diagnostics :-)

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This take on eye tracking called the Jins Meme integrated eye tracking and other sensors into hipster glasses. Again the scenarios aren’t quite there yet but it is very interesting. They even package this up in multi-packs for schools and research.

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There were many products attempting to sense things in the home. I feel most of these will need to find better integration with other scenarios rather than being point solutions but they are all very interesting to study and will still find initial use cases. This is how innovation happens.

One of the more elaborate sensors is called Mother. It packages up a number of sensors that connect wireless to a base station. There are temperature and motion sensors among them. You just place these near where you want to know something (these little chips). Then they have a nice app that translates sensing events into notifications.

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There were even sensors for shoes and socks. If you’ve ever had foot issues you know the need to attempt to replicate your pain while being monitored by a high-speed camera or even fluoroscope/x-ray. These sensors, such as this one in a sock, have immediately interesting medical use under physician supervision. Like many of the sensors, I feel this is a best practice use case and don’t think the home-use case is quite right yet because of the lack of accessible scientific data.

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The Lillypad floats around in your pool and takes measurements of the water and wirelessly sends them to an app. It also measures UV light as a clever bonus.

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Speaking of pools, this was such a clever sensor. It is a Bluetooth radio that you pair with your phone. You get kids to wear this around a pool. When the kid is submerged it will notify you. You can get notified immediately or after a set time (I learned the national standard for under water distress is 25 seconds). The big trick—there’s no technology here; just that Bluetooth doesn’t travel under water. Awesome!

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In this previous post, the notion of ingredients versus products at CES was discussed. To emphasize what this means in practice, this montage below is from a vendor that literally packaged up every point-sensor into a “product”. This allows for a suite of products, which is great in a catalog but awfully complex for a consumer. There were a dozen manufacturers displaying a similar range of single-sensor products. I don’t know if this is sustainable.

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Connectivity gaining ubiquity

PM Learning: Duh, everything will be connected. But unlike previous years, this is now in full execution mode. The biggest challenge is what “things” get connected to what things or networks. When do you put smarts somewhere? Where does data go? What data is used?

Everything is going to be connected. This has been talked about for a long time, but is really here now. The cost of connectivity is so low and, at least in the developing world, assuming either Wi-Fi or WWAN (via add-on plans) is rational and economical. This will introduce a lot of complexity for hardware makers who traditionally have not thought about software. It will make for room for new players that can re-think scenarios and where to put the value. Some devices will improve quickly. Others will struggle to find a purpose to connect. We’ve seen the benefits of remote thermostats and monitoring cameras. On the other hand, remote controlled clothes washers (that can’t load the clothes from the basket or get the clothes into the dryer) might be still searching. I would add that this dual load washer from LG is very clever.

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Many products were demonstrating their “Works with Nest”. This is a nice API and and it is attracting a lot of attention since like any platform is saves the device makers from doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of software. While many of the demonstrations were interesting there can still be a little bit of a gimmick aspect to it (washing machines). This alarm clock was interesting to me. While many of us just use phones now (which can control nest) this clock uses voice recognition for alarm functions. When connected to a Nest it can also be used to change the temperature or to alter the home/away settings of the thermostat.

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A company called Cannon Security relatively new security safe company (most are very old) and I loved this “connected” safe. It isn’t connected the way I thought (an app to open it or alert you of a break in). Instead it is a safe that also has a network cable and two USB ports. So one use might be to store a network connected drive in the safe and use it for backup. You could also keep something in the safe charging via USB. Pretty cool. The jack pack is in the lower right of the image.

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My favorite product of the whole show, saving the best for last, is not yet released. But talk about a magic collection of connectivity and data…wow. These founders set out to solve the problem of getting packages delivered to your house. Most communities prevent you from getting a delivery box out front and in many places you can’t have something left on your doorstep and expect it to remain. This product, called “Track PIN” solves the problem. Here’s what it does:

  1. Insert a small module inline in the tree wires that control your garage door.
  2. Add a battery operated PIN box to the front of your garage somewhere.
  3. When you receive a package tracking number email just forward it to trackpin.com (sort of like the way TripIt works).
  4. THEN, when the delivery person shows up (UPS, FedEx, USPS, and more) they will automatically know in their handheld what code to punch. Upon punching the code your garage door opens a short amount to slide the package in. No signature required. The PIN is invalidated. The driver is happy. You are happy. Amazon is happy. And the cloud did all the work.

I know it sounds somewhat mundane, but these folks really seem to have developed a cool solution. It beats bothering the neighbors.

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Fun Products

Every CES has a few fun products that you just want to call attention to without snark or anything, just because we all know product development is not a science and one has to try a lot of things to get to the right product.

Power Pole. This is my contribution to selfies. This one even has its own power source.

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Emergency jump starter/laptop charger/power source. This was a perfectly fine product. The fun part was seeing the exact same product with different logos in 5 different booths. Amazing placement by the ODM.

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USB Charger. This is the best non-commercial USB charger I’ve seen. It even includes a way out of spec “high voltage port.

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Fake TV. This is a home security system that flashes multi-colored LED lights that trick a burglar into thinking you are home watching TV. Best part about it was that when I took the picture the person staffing the booth said “Don’t worry the Wi-Fi Drone version is coming in late 2015”. Gotta love that!!

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Surface influence. And finally, I’ve been known to be a fan of Microsoft Surface but I guess I was not alone. The Typo keyboard attempts to bring a Microsoft TypeCover to the iPad and the Remix Ultra-Tablet is a rather uncanny resemblance to Surface 2 running an Android skin (developed by several former Google employees).

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Phew. That’s CES 2015 in a nutshell.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

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Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 11, 2015 at 10:00 pm

Going Where the Money Isn’t: Wi-Fi for South African Townships

project-isizweSpending time in Africa, one is always awestruck. The continent has so much to offer, from sands to rain forests, from apes to zebras, from Afrikaans to Zulu. More than 1.1 billion people, 53 countries and at least 2,000 different spoken languages make for amazing diversity and energy.

Yet even while spending just a little time, you quickly see the economic challenges faced by many — slums, townships, settlements and the poverty they represent are seen too frequently. The contrast with the developing world is immense. As a visitor, you’re not particularly surprised to find the difficulties in staying connected to wireless services that you’ve become reliant upon.

South African Alan Knott-Craig is an experienced entrepreneur who is setting out to bring connectivity via Wi-Fi to slums and townships across South Africa.

We hear about the mobile revolution in Africa all the time. Today, this is a revolution in voice and text on feature phones and increasingly on smartphones, phablets and small tablets. Smartphones are making a rapid rise in use, if for no other reason than they have become inexpensive and ubiquitous on the world stage, and also thanks, in part, to reselling of used phones from developed markets.

But keeping smartphones connected to the Internet is straining the spectrum in most countries, and is certainly straining the connectivity infrastructure. Africa, for the most part, will “skip over” PCs, as hundreds of millions of people connect to the Internet exclusively by phones and tablets. But there’s an acute need for improved connectivity.

The problem is that, even in the most developed areas of Africa, the deployment of strong and fast 3G and 4G coverage is lagging, and the capital that is available will flow to build out areas where there are paying customers. That means that the outlying areas, where a lot of people live, will continue to be underserved for quite some time.

Alan Knott-Craig, an experienced South African entrepreneur who is setting out to bring connectivity via Wi-Fi across his homeland, knows that Internet access is transformative to those in slums and townships. His previous company, Mxit, where he was CEO, developed a wildly popular social network for feature phones. It delivered a vast array of services, from education to community to commerce, and is in use by tens of millions.

Given the challenges of connectivity in Africa, you often find yourself searching for a Wi-Fi connection for any substantial browsing or app usage. The best case — except for a couple of markets and capital cities — is that you will get a strong 3G and occasional 4G that is highly dependent on carrier and location. It is not uncommon for folks to have smartphones that are used for voice and text when on the network, and apps that are used only when there is Wi-Fi. It’s not just a way to save money or avoid your data cap — Wi-Fi is a necessity.

“Going where the money isn’t”

One can imagine there’s a big business to be had building out the Wi-Fi hotspot infrastructure in the country. Knott-Craig recognized this as he began to explore how to bring connectivity to more people.

Having grown up in South Africa and deeply committed to both the social and business needs of the country, Knott-Craig has also dedicated his businesses to those who are least well served and would benefit the most. Over the past 20 years, the improvements in service delivery to the slums and townships of South Africa have improved immensely, reducing what once seemed like an insurmountable gap. While there is clearly a long way to go, progress is being made.

One of many settlements or townships you can see in South Africa. This one is outside of Capetown, adjacent to a highway. The cement buildings at the edge of town are public toilets.

The transformation that mobile is bringing to townships is almost beyond words to those who are deeply familiar with the challenges. Talking and texting with family and friends are great and valuable. A mobile phone brings empowerment and identity (a phone number is the most reliable form of identity for many) in ways that no other service has been able to. Access to information, education and community all come from mobile phones. Mobile is a massive accelerator when it comes to closing economic divides.

All too often in business, the path is to build a business around where the money is. Knott-Craig’s deep experience in mobile communications told him that the major carriers will address connectivity in the cities and where there is already money. So, in his words, he set out to improve mobile connectivity by “going where the money isn’t.”

It was obvious to Alan that setting up Wi-Fi access would be transformative. The question was really how to go about it.

Building bridges

Time and again, one lesson from philanthropy is that the solutions that work and endure are the ones that enroll the local community. Services that are created by partnerships between the residents of townships, the government and business are the only way to build sustainable programs. The implication is that rolling into town with a bunch of access points and Internet access sounds like a good idea — who wouldn’t want connectivity? — but in practice would be met with resistance from all sides.

Thinking about the parties involved, Knott-Craig created Project Isizwe — helping to deliver Wi-Fi to townships on behalf of municipalities. “Isizwe” is Xhosa for “nation,” “tribe” or “people.”

Project Isizwe is located in Stellenbosch, which has an uncanny resemblance to Silicon Valley in weather, tempo and proximity to a premier technical talent pool from a leading university.

In the townships, people pay for Internet access by the minute, by the text and by the megabyte. Rolling out Wi-Fi needed to fit within this model, and not create yet another service to buy. So the first hurdle to address would be to find a way to piggyback on that existing payment infrastructure.

To do this, Knott-Craig worked with carriers in a very smart way. Carriers want their customers on the Internet, and in fact would love to offload customers to Wi-Fi when available. While they can do this in densely populated urban areas where access points can be set up, townships pose a very different environmental challenge, discussed below.

Given the carriers’ openness to offloading customers to Wi-Fi, the project devised a solution based on the latest IEEE standards for automatically signing on to available hotspots (something that we wish we would experience in practice in the U.S.). A customer of one of the major carriers, MTN for example, would initiate a connection to the Isizwe network, and from then on would automatically authenticate and connect using the mobile number and prepaid megabytes, just as though the Wi-Fi were a WWAN connection.

This “Hotspot 2.0″ implementation is amazingly friendly and easy to use. It removes the huge barrier to using Wi-Fi that most experience (the dreaded sign-on page), and that in turn makes the carriers very happy. Because of the value to the carriers, Knott-Craig is working to establish this same billing relationship across carriers, so this works no matter who provides your service.

Of course this doesn’t solve the problem of where the bandwidth comes from in the first place. Since Knott-Craig is all about building bridges and enrolling support across the community, he created unique opportunities for those that already have unused bandwidth to be part of the solution.

Whether it is large corporations or the carriers themselves, Project Isizwe created a wholesale pool of bandwidth by either purchasing outright or using donated bandwidth to create capacity. The donated bandwidth provides a tax deduction benefit at the same time. Everyone wins. Interestingly, the donated bandwidth makes use of off-peak capacity, which is exactly when people in the townships want to spend time on the Internet anyway.


With demand and supply established, the next step is to enroll the government. Here again, the team’s experience in working with local officials comes into play.

As with any market around the world, you can’t just put up public-use infrastructure on public land and start to use it. The same thing is true in the townships of South Africa. In fact, one could imagine an outright rejection of providing this sort of service from a private organization, simply because it competes with the service delivery the government provides.

In addition, the cost factor is always an issue. Too many programs for townships start out free, but end up costing the government money (money they don’t have) over time. It isn’t enough to provide the capital equipment and ask the government to provide operational costs, or vice versa. Project Isizwe is set up to ensure that public free Wi-Fi networks are a sustainable model, but needed government support to do so.

With the enrollment of the carriers and community support, bringing along the government required catering to their needs, as well. One of the biggest challenges in the townships is the rough-and-tumble politics — not unlike local politics in American cities. The challenge that elected officials have is getting their voice heard. Without regular television coverage, and with sporadic or limited print coverage, the Internet has the potential to be a way for the government to reach citizens.

As part of the offering, Knott-Craig and his team devised a platform for elected officials to air their point of view through “over the top” means. Essentially, part of the Wi-Fi service provides access to a public-service “station” filled with information directly from governmental service providers. Because of the nature of the technology, these streams can be cached and provided at an ultra-low cost.

The bottom line for government is that they are in the business of providing basic services for the community. Providing Internet access only adds to the menu of services, including water, electrical, sanitation, police, fire and more. Doing so without a massive new public program of infrastructure is a huge part of what Isizwe did to win over those officials.

Access points

With all the parties enrolled, there still needs to be some technology. It should come as no surprise that setting up access points in townships poses some unique challenges: Physical security, long-haul connectivity and power need to be solved.

One of the neat things about the tech startup ecosystem in South Africa is the ability to draw on resources unique to the country. The buildup of military and security technology, particularly in Pretoria, created an ecosystem of companies and talent well-suited to the task. Given the decline of these industries, it turns out that these resources are now readily available to support new private-sector work.

First up was building out the access points themselves. Unlike a coffee shop, where you would just connect an access point to a cable modem and hide it above a ceiling tile, townships have other challenges. Most of the access points are located high up in secured infrastructure, such as water towers. These locations also have reliable power and are already monitored for security.

The access points are secured in custom-designed enclosures, and use networking equipment sourced from Silicon Valley companies Ruckus Wireless and Ubiquiti Networks, which implement hotspots around the world. This enclosure design and build was done by experienced steel-manufacturing plants in Pretoria. In addition, these enclosures provide two-way security cameras with night vision to monitor things.

This provided for a fun moment the first time someone signed on. A resident had been waiting for the Wi-Fi and was hanging out right below the tower. As soon as they signed on for the first time, back at the operations center they could see this on the dashboard, as well as the camera, and used the two-way loudspeaker to ask, “So how do you like the Wi-Fi?” which was quite a surprise to a guy just checking football scores on his mobile phone.

Along with using engineers from Pretoria to design the enclosure, Isizwe also employed former military engineers to go on-site to install the access points. This work involved two high-risk activities. First, these men needed to climb up some pretty tall structures and install something not previously catered for. Their skills as linemen and soldiers helped here.

More importantly, these were mostly Afrikaner white men venturing into the heart of black townships to do this work. Even though South Africa is years into an integrated and equality-based society, the old emotions are still there, just as has been seen in many other societies.

This would be potentially emotionally charged for these Afrikaners in particular. No only were there no incidents, but the technicians were welcomed with open arms, given the work that they were doing — “We are here to bring you Wi-Fi” — turns out to make it easy to put aside any (wrongly) preconceived notions. In fact, after the job, the installers were quite emotional about how life-changing the experience was for them to go into the townships for the first time and to do good work there.

The absence of underground cabling presents the challenge of getting these access points on the Internet in the first place. To accomplish this, each access point uses a microwave relay to connect back up to a central location, which is then connected over a landline. This is a huge advantage over most Wi-Fi on the African continent, which is generally a high-gain 3G WWAN connection that gets shared over local Wi-Fi.

Bytes flowing

The service is up and running today as a 1.0 version, in which Wi-Fi is free but limited to 250 megabytes; the billing infrastructure is just a few months away, which will enable pay-as-you-go usage of megabytes. The service will be free when there is capacity going unused.

The cost efficacy of the system is incredible, and that is passed along to individual users. Wi-Fi is provided at about 15 cents (ZAR cents) per gigabyte, which compares to more than 80 cents per megabyte for spotty 3G. That is highly affordable for the target customers.

Because of the limits of physics of Wi-Fi, the system is not set up to allow mass streaming of football, which is in high demand. Mechanisms are in place to create what amounts to over-the-top broadcast by using fixed locations within the community.

The most popular services being accessed are short videos on YouTube, music, news, employment information and educational services like Khan Academy and Wikipedia. The generation growing up in the townships is even more committed to education, so it is no surprise to see such a focus. Another important set of services being accessed are those for faith and religion, particularly Christian gospel content.

The numbers are incredible and growing rapidly, as the Isizwe scales to even more townships. In the middle of the afternoon (when people are at school and working), we pulled up the dashboard and saw some stats:

  • 609 people were online right at that moment.
  • 4,455 people had already used the service that day.
  • 304 people had already reached their daily limit that day.
  • More than 70,000 unique users since the system went online with 1.0 in November 2013.
  • 208GB transferred since going online
  • Most all of the mobile traffic is Android, along with the newest Asha phones from Nokia. Recycled iPhones from the developed market also make a showing.

In terms of physical infrastructure required, it takes about 200 access points to cover a densely populated area of one million residents. This allows about 200,000 simultaneous users overall, with about 50-500 users per access point, depending on usage and congestion.


We talk all the time about the transformational nature of mobile connectivity, and many in the U.S. are deeply committed to getting people connected all around the world. Project Isizwe is an incredible example of the local innovation required to build products and services to deliver on those desires.

The public/private/community partnerships that are the hallmark of Isizwe will scale to many townships across South Africa. Building on this base, there are many exciting information-based services that can be provided. Things are just getting started.


–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

This post originally appeared on Re/code.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

August 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Posted in recode

Tagged with , ,

Disrupting Payments, Africa Style

Note from the author: For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been spending time informally in Africa, where I have a chance to visit with government officials, non-government organizations, and residents of towns, settlements and cities. In the next post, I’ll talk about free Wi-Fi in South Africa slums. This post originally appeared on Re/code.

Spending time in the developing world, one can always marvel at the resourcefulness of people living in often extraordinarily difficult conditions. The challenges of living in many parts of the world certainly cause one to reflect on what we see from day to day. Here in the U.S., we’re all familiar with the transformative nature of mobile phones in our lives. And for those in extreme poverty, the mobile phone has been equally, if not more, transformative.

One particular challenge faced by many in Africa, especially those living in fairly extreme poverty (less than $500 a year in purchase power), is dealing with money and buying things, and how the mobile phone is transforming those needs.

One could fill many posts with what it is like to live at such low levels of income, but suffice it to say that even when you are fortunate enough to ground your perspective in firsthand experience, it is still not possible to really internalize the challenges.

Slum life

Imagine living in a place where your small structure, like the one pictured below, is under constant threat of being demolished, and you run the risk of being relocated even farther away from work and family. Imagine a place where you don’t have the means of contacting the police, even if they might show up. Imagine a place where it takes a brick-sized amount of cash to buy a new cooking pot. image Representative home, or “struct,” in an informal settlement in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe. Steven Sinofsky

These and untold more challenges define day-to-day life in slums, settlements and townships in developing countries in Africa, where the introduction of mobile phones has transformed a vast array of daily living tasks. Take the structure seen above, for example. It is a settlement in a vacant lot next to an office park in Harare, Zimbabwe. About 120 of these “structs” are occupied by about 600 people. For the most part, residents sell what they can make or cook; a small number possess some set of trade skills. Below, you can see a stand run out of one struct that sells eggs farmed on-site.

image Shop window in front of home where fresh eggs are sold in an informal settlement in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe. Steven Sinofsky.

Mobile phones and extreme poverty

Through a Xhona-speaking interpreter, I had a chance to be part of a group (representing the government) hearing about life in the settlement. One question I got to ask was how many had mobile phones. Keeping in mind that the per capita spending power of these folks would be formally labeled “extreme poverty,” the answer blew me away. Nearly every adult had a mobile phone. When I asked for a show of hands, some proudly said they didn’t bring it to the meeting.

image Group of representatives showing off their mobile phones (all pictured owned a phone) of an informal settlement in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe. Steven Sinofsky

Right away, you see the importance of a mobile phone when you consider the cost of the phone as a percentage of income. It is hard for us to imagine the trade-offs phone owners here are making, but in earning-power equivalence, a phone in this village is roughly what a car and its operation costs us — and we already have food, shelter and clothing in ample supply.

Communicating with family is a key function, because families are often separated by distance, as members go looking for work or to find a better place to live.

Phones are also used to call the police. Before mobile phones, there was simply no way to get the police to your home or settlement, since there are no landlines or nearby telephones. Keep in mind that most residents in these areas have no formal identification or address, and the settlements are often unofficial and unrecognized by authorities.

Phones are also used as an early warning system for authorities that might be on the way to evict folks, or perhaps perform some other type of inspection. The legalities of settlements and how that works are a separate topic altogether, but I won’t go into that here.

Phones are used to keep track of what goods are selling where, or what goods might be needed. A network of people helps each other to maximize income from goods based on where and when they can be sold, because they are needed. Think of this as extremely local information that was previously unavailable. This is crucial, because many goods have limited shelf life and, frankly, many people produce the same goods.

A specific example for some people was the use of phones to monitor the supply chain for beer and alcohol. One set of people specialized in redistribution of beverages, and needed to keep tabs on events and unique needs in the community.

A favorite example of mine is “queue efficiency.” One of the many challenging aspects of life in extreme poverty is waiting — waiting on line for water, for transportation, for public services of all kinds. Phones play an important role in bringing some level of optimization to this process by sharing information on the size of queues and the quality of service available. We might think of this as Waze for lines, implemented over SMS friends and family networks.

Some of these uses seem straightforward, or simply cultural adaptations of what anyone with a phone would do. The fact that Africa skipped landlines is a fascinating statement about technological evolution — just as, for the most part, the continent will skip PCs in favor of smartphones, and will likely skip private ownership of transportation for shared-economy solutions (the history of Lyft is one that begins with shared rides in Zimbabwe).

Skipping over traditional banking

An old-economy service that Africa is likely to skip will be personal banking. In the U.S., our tech focus tends to be on China and the role that mobile payments play there with WeChat or AliPay, or more broadly on the innovation going on payments between the innovative PayPal, Square and, of course, bitcoin. In Africa, almost no one has a bank account, and definitely no credit cards. But as we saw, everyone has a mobile phone.

The most famous mobile banking solution in Africa is M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money), which started in Kenya. People there use their phones to store cash and pay for goods. Similar solutions exist in many countries. Even in a place as remote and difficult as Somaliland, you can see these at work, as I did recently.

Madagascar is an island-country with incredible beauty and an abundance of things not seen across Africa, including natural resources, farmable land and water, not to mention lemurs. Yet the country is incredibly poor, with a countrywide per capita GDP of $400, which puts it in the bottom 10 countries of the world. On average, people live at the extreme poverty level of $1.25 per day in purchase power. One city I visited in Madagascar is home to the UN Millennium Development Goals, which is programmatically working to improve these extremely impoverished areas.

image Sign signifying the entrance to a town in rural Madagascar designated a Millennium Development Goals location, one of about a dozen worldwide. Steven Sinofsky

Yet technology is making a huge difference in lives there. Madagascar has three main mobile phone carriers. These are all prepay, and penetration is extremely high, even in the most remote areas. The country is wired with mostly 2G connectivity; there is some coverage at 3G, but it is highly variable. The only common use for 3G is for Internet access using external USB modems connected to PCs (usually netbooks) and shared.

Most of the phones in use are feature phones, often hand-me-downs from the developed market. I’ve even seen a few iPhone 3s. One person complained about being unable to update iOS because he has no high-speed connection for such a download (showing that people are connected to the world, just not at a high download speed). A developed-market smartphone is pretty much a feature phone here, and the cost of another network upgrade means that one is far off. People are anxious for more connectivity, but along with cost, the current state of government will make progress a bit slower than citizens would like.

A huge problem in this type of environment is safely dealing with money. Madagascar’s currency trades at $1 U.S. to 2,500 Madagascar ariary. When you live off of 3,000 or so a day, you’re not going to carry around three bills, so very quickly you end up with a brick of 100 Ar notes. What to do with all those? Where can you put them? How do you keep them safe? How can you even keep them dry in a rain forest?

Well, along comes mobile “banking.” As easy as you can recharge your phone, you can add money to your stored money account. You walk up to a kiosk — there are thousands and thousands of them — and in a series of text messages with the shopkeeper, you give her money and your phone gains stored value.

image Home and storefront selling recharge minutes for pay-per-use mobile phones; also a station for mobile-phone banking in rural Madagascar. Steven Sinofsky

With iOS and Android fragmentation, how would these apps work, given what must be finite dev resources? The implementation of this is all through an old-school standard called SIM Apps or Sim Application Toolkit.

This set of APIs and capability allow the installation of apps that reside on your SIM. These apps are simple menu-driven apps that look like WAP sites. They are secure and controlled by carriers. Using this framework, mobile banking has reached unprecedented usage and importance in developing markets, particularly in Africa.

The scenario for usage is quite simple. You charge your phone with money, just as you would with minutes. When you want to buy something, you bring up the SMS app (pictured below, on an iPhone 3 in Malagasy) and initiate a transaction. The merchant gives you a code, which you enter along with the merchant’s identifying code. You then type in an amount, which is verified against your current balance. The merchant then receives a notification, and the transaction is complete. The whole system is safe from theft because of the connection to your mobile number, two-factor authentication and so on. There is no carrier dependency, so you can easily send/receive to any carrier, though the carrier has your balance. This isn’t an interest-earning savings account, but rather a transaction or debit account (of course, in the U.S., few of us earn interest on demand deposits these days, anyway). image Screen showing “My Account” in Malagasy, displayed on a recycled iPhone 3 (note the absence of a cellular connection). Steven Sinofsky

You can also give and receive money from individuals. This is extraordinarily important, given how there can be distance between family or even the main wage-earning in a family. The idea of sending money around to family members is an incredibly important part of the cash economy of low-income people. This market, called “remittance,” is estimated to be over $400 billion in developing markets alone.

Life is easier and safer for those using mobile banking this way. You can count on your money being safe. You don’t need to carry around cash and worry about loss, theft, or water and weather destroying physical currency. You can easily deal with small and exact amounts. As a merchant, you don’t have to make change. It is just better in every dimension.

The carriers profit by taking a percentage of the transaction, which is high in the same way that check-cashing in the U.S. is high (and credit cards, for that matter). The fee is about two percent, which I am not sure will be sustainable, given the competition between carriers. I also think it will be fascinating to see how developed-market companies like Western Union evolve to support mobile payments, as they provide integration points to the developed-market financial systems. It is not uncommon to see a Western Union representative also offering phone recharge and mobile banking services.

In our environment, we would see this as a convenience, like a debit card. But in Africa, it is far more secure and convenient, because you only need your phone, which you will carry with you almost all the time, just as we do in the U.S.

I think the most interesting point of note in this solution is how it essentially skips over banking. If we think about our own lives, and especially those of the generation entering the workforce now, banking is most decidedly archaic. The whole idea of opening an account and dealing with a level of indirection which offers very little by way of useful services — it just feels like there’s a need for disruption. Our installed base of infrastructure makes this very difficult, but in the developing world that challenge doesn’t exist. It isn’t likely that most people will graduate to full-fledged banking just as we don’t expect people to graduate from a mobile phone to a full-fledged PC.

It also isn’t hard to imagine this type of mobile banking taking off first in the cash-based part of the developed world, where today people pay fees to cash checks and buy money orders, absent a bank account. The large numbers of check-cashing storefronts located near lower-income areas share much in common in some ways. One example is remittance. Many immigrants in the U.S. are the source for remittance funds going to developing markets. Seattle, for example, has one of the largest populations of Somalians outside of Northern Africa, and they routinely send funds back to their families. Today, this is a difficult process, and could be made a lot easier with a global and mobile solution.

Looking forward


Merchant using a credit-card reader attempting to get a stronger signal to complete the transaction in Anosibe, Madagascar. Steven Sinofsky

I look forward to solutions like this for our own lives here in the U.S. We see some of this in service-by-service cases. For example, using Lyft is completely cashless. I can use PayPal at merchants like Home Depot. Obviously, we all see Square and other payment mechanisms. Each of these shares a common connection to established banking and plastic cards. That’s where I think disruption awaits. Will this be bitcoin alone? Will someone, even a carrier, develop and scale a simple stored-value mechanism like that being used by billions of people already?

For myself, and no doubt for many reading this, this transformation is old hat. I’ve seen these changes over the past decade across many countries in Africa and elsewhere. Africa isn’t single-marketplace by any stretch. What is working in Madagascar, Kenya, Somaliland and others might not work elsewhere, or might not work for all segments of a given economy. Stay tuned for more observations from this trip.

It is always worth a reminder how some changes can bring about a massive difference in quality of life.

–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi

P.S.: What happens when you’re forced to use high-tech 3G connectivity to do a Visa card transaction? The merchant (pictured above) goes outside in a rain forest and aims for a stronger connection for the card reader. Yikes!

Written by Steven Sinofsky

July 25, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in posts, recode

Tagged with , ,

#codecon and reflecting on generational changes

RecodeAttending the <code/conference> (#codecon) this past week turned out to be a remarkable experience, even more remarkable than I expected. The generational shift in our computing experience from desktop to mobile, from software to services, and from hundreds of millions to trillions was on display through the interviews with a dozen industry CEOs.

This post will explore this generational change through the speakers at the conference. Before diving into the details of each session, we will explore this change and the implicit context.

Generational Change

Reflecting on the interviews and demonstrations as well as the “lobby chatter” is a key part of learning by attending. I’ve always viewed this conference and predecessor D Conference as the most relevant conferences for learning about the strategic drivers of our industry. You can read my report from last year here. Writing these reports is part of the learning for me and reading the old reports lets me checkpoint on my own learning and journey.

If you move beyond the insights from any single speaker or the announcements at the event (all were widely reported by re/code and others and new this year by re/code partner CNBC), one theme just keeps coming back to me—the vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new, or whatever labels you want to use. We talk all the time about the transition of our industry from one era to another (and don’t forget the term “post-PC” was first used in this very forum) and the conference provides a microcosm expressed through leaders of these transitions taking place.

There is a vast difference in tone and content between the incumbents and the challengers, between legacy and disruptors, between the old guard and the new.

The transition is in full force. This does not mean by definition that all existing companies will lose and only new companies will win. Quite the contrary, the fact that these changes are now visible to all makes the creation, purchase, and use of new products and technologies evidence of the transition, as well as opportunity to create new plans and adjust. The mobile internet is causing the transition but also making the communication of that very transition much more transparent, which is unlike the progressive unveiling that characterized the mainframe to mini to PC transition.

Are the new companies doing enough to transition customers as well as their own business to new paradigms? How much should new companies bridge from existing solutions or should they expect a wholesale change from customers? Is there an understanding of the existing complexities of the real world?

Are the incumbents changing enough to build new products and business that reflect the new generation? Are they trying too much to “thread the needle” and incrementally step to a new context by maintaining status quo or “repotting the plants”? Is there an understanding of the complexities of existing solutions?

The puts this "generational" change out there for us to experience through the always challenging, yet always consistently even-handed questioning (interrogation) from Walt and Kara (and a great addition this year were interviews featuring seasoned members of the re/code team).

Context (is everything in business)

The attendees (in the audience) are people who have worked in the industry often times since the earliest days. The interviewers are professionals who cover deeply the industry and the subjects. It is hard to imagine creating a more informed or tougher environment. That’s the challenge.

Yet, industry leaders both line up and are obliged to appear (for the most part). Because the environment is so challenging and widely covered, leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge.

Leaders gain a great deal of credibility by standing up to the challenge of appearing.

The conference takes place the same time every year, whether a company has something to announce or not. For example, last year attendees were frustrated because Apple’s Tim Cook did not announce anything. This is an unfair way to look at the “performance” of a participant. This conference has an amazing audience, but it is also an “uncontrolled” environment so announcing a new product is not without risk and not without huge upside (Disclaimer: I’ve been part of several product announcements/interviews at this forum). Apple, along with many companies, has a tried and true approach to announcing new things as we will see next week.

What is most interesting about the forum, however, is that the format and depth of the dialog allows for a strong “how did we get here” or “how are you wrestling with challenges” discussion. This is not a one-way speech or a forum where talking points go unchallenged. That is in a sense what separates the men from the boys so to speak.

When speakers prepare for the interview, especially at larger companies, folks in communications prepare talking points, responses to tough questions, anecdotes, and even jokes. This is a forum where this can take on “Presidential debate” levels of preparation. The challenge is that everyone in the audience and certainly the interviewers are all well-versed in these techniques. For the presenters, all of that over-preparation cycles through your mind during the tough questions and unpredictable questions from the audience. This is a tough environment.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain. There is a collective sense of a missed opportunity to learn more among attendees.

When speakers choose not to say anything of depth or the answer is clearly a prepared message, you can almost feel the energy in the room drain.

Too many people focus on CEOs evading questions about the next big deal or the features/availability of the next product. I don’t think that is a way to evaluate speakers and in almost all cases the interviewers ask a question like this one time often make a joke and move on.

Reporters have an obligation to ask or they look like they are not doing their job. Speakers have an obligation to acknowledge such a forward-looking, material statement and move on. There’s a big caveat to this and where I wanted to share my own learning, my own journey. I believe when it comes to challenges and strategy, CEOs specifically and companies in general can and should do more to inform the dialog. The way I would say this is that if there is something out there that everyone knows to be a fact and the speaker knows to be a fact and everyone knows everyone knows, then talk about it. By not talking about it, the conventional wisdom becomes the reality and the conventional wisdom is often wrong and always incomplete.

I have personally experienced this in the transition from Windows Vista to Windows 7. “Everyone” knew something was up with Vista and certainly Microsoft knew, but no one was saying anything. The result was a strong desire to know the next features of Windows, which was the only thing that folks knew to ask. It served no one to talk about the features of the next product but it also served no one to pretend everything was going well. I missed a big opportunity and looked foolish in a very early interview I did with a (now) re/code reporter. I followed the tried and true approach of the incumbent which is to say nothing, redirect, and so on. See several thousand words without saying anything appear here, from 6 years ago this week.

It turns out that in a world of global instant communication, transparency, open source, platform shifts, and so on that the story about the products, the strategy, and more can come to define efforts more than folks think. This isn’t always the case because business is a social science, but by and large what distinguishes the way the PC era evolved from the way the mobile era is evolving is a vast difference in the flow of information and pace of change. Corporate communications and the leadership approach need to adapt to this era. Recognizing this one thing we did on the above transition in Windows was start blogging about the “why” of the product long before the release, which to this day was a unique level of transparency (and also a huge challenge).

The generational change taking place now is challenging large companies more than ever before. Technology companies are seeing their investments and assets have faster lifecycles and shorter lifespans. They should address head on the challenges of these timescales and commitments. Business approaches are also being challenged and everyone knows this on all sides, but not talking about the challenges means everyone just assumes how things will evolve, and collectively everyone can’t be right.

These changes are also pushing and pulling customers more than ever before. As individual consumers we invest a little bit in a new phone or tablet and maybe a gadget and services here and there. Some of these pan out and some don’t. But large companies looking to define themselves in a new era of mobility, bring your own devices, cross-organizational boundaries, and cloud need much more information and a clearer understanding of what and why things have transpired like they have. Discussing the rationale behind choices provides much more context for customers making bets and allows a much more open dialog to compare and contrast choices. This goes way beyond features and gets to the strategy, learning from the past, direction for the future–it is a fine line.

It is too easy to fall back to wanting to know the next products and features. Companies still have secrets. That’s what defines a company relative to competition. As Jeff Bezos commented recently, “sure, I’d like to know Apple’s product roadmap”. To interpret the need for openness as a public roadmap or feature list misses the point—what was missing from the incumbent perspective was a view of what has transpired over the past 5 years and with that understanding a view of what could provide more understanding of how investments are moving forward.

The real question is if incumbents are going to change enough, fast enough, and in a sense disrupt themselves and do so with a clear understanding of what has transpired in the past few years. Or will they take on all the characteristics of “Innovator’s Dilemma” and operate hoping incremental change dampens any effect of big transitions will allow them to weather the storm and return to normal.

To see how significant this transition is, I think it is best to start with Mary Meeker’s always informative “Internet Trends 2014”. The complete report is available and so is the video. There were many interesting data points—the rise of China, the conversion of smartphones from feature phones, the move of OS platforms to Silicon Valley companies, messaging, and more. One slide that sums up the transition along with the challenge showed the growth of tablets relative to PCs with the title “Tablet Units = Growing Faster Than PCs Ever Did…+52%, 2013”.


Tablet growth relative to PCs

Because business is a social science and because there are many ways to look at data, no doubt some will challenge this data or conclusions. In fact, IDC just revised their tablet numbers down. Some feel that Tablets are reverting to their role as “media consumption” or lightweight computing devices. That I’m writing this on a tablet (yes one with a keyboard, but one with LTE, 10 hour battery life, weighs nothing, B5 size, etc.) provides my own anecdote about where things are heading.

This growth will change. It might sputter and then increase. There’s no doubt tablets are overtaking notebooks in terms of unit volumes. They are definitely not taking over all notebook workloads. But that would be like saying the growth of email was irrelevant to word-processing because it ignores the growth of the pie and shift in total volume to the new technology. As Steve Jobs said on stage at this conference, the software will catch up. This is happening. Despite what people might think, large numbers of attendees had their tablets at the conference and they were being “productive”.

Just as mainframe companies attempted to point out the shortcomings of PCs as servers, pointing out the shortcomings of tablets is not helpful, especially as tablets continue to gain more and more features of laptops while maintaining their unique characteristics (lightweight, fanless, quality over time, connectivity, reliability, security, apps, etc.)

One more slide from Mary sets the context that dominated the divergence of incumbents and disruptors and that was the view of the market size of each generation of computing, “Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle.”

Each New Computing Cycle = >10x > Installed Base Than Previous Cycle

“More than just phones” might lump too many devices into the last data point for some wishing to make the point that things are not changing so much. Let’s be clear—many mainframes still run the most critical systems of the world (I was in a briefing with an insurance company last week that wanted to hire me because I happened to know PL/1!). Today’s laptops have massive utility that isn’t being replaced overnight and probably won’t ever be “replaced”. That’s the Innovator’s Dilemma argument that does not equip either product developers or customers to innovate and prosper during these cycle changes.

Once you get beyond the specifics of what is coming next, which no one should be obliged to answer at #codecon, the dialog that gets to the heart of what is going on is worth having. What was missed? What was learned? What was tried? What did you think of what was tried? What is being done differently? How are big technology changes being thought of in isolation? Relative to existing investments? What point of view does a company have? What led the new company to be formed? What is different about investments being made? How do customers cope with change?

These questions and how they were answered made for quite a contrast between incumbents and disruptors. If you’re interested in per-speaker reports or the full interviews for any of them, please see the re/code site. My intent is not to summarize the sessions but to reflect on the sessions through this lens of forward leaning versus backward looking.


The incumbents of Microsoft, Intel, Comcast and Wal-Mart had a common theme which is that they each face significant challenges in the technology platforms and business models that brought them wildly successful. At the same time, each in my view missed an opportunity to say how they intend to change. In a sense, each asked us to leap to a future with them in leadership but without the detail to support that assertion.

It is key to understand that it is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale. In many ways, the startups we love serve as disruptive R&D for larger players and a healthy M&A pipeline is critical for all as evidenced by some of the recent mega-deals and dozens of smaller ones all aimed at the long term evolution of core products.

It is incredibly important for an industry to have large and healthy players operating at scale

Yet, many investments, particularly in hardware and manufacturing, require billions of dollars that can only be made by large companies. Incremental improvements we come to take for granted such as doubling of capacity, improved batteries, thinner devices, more pixels, massive data centers, and so on can only come from huge scale and well-functioning large companies.

At the same time, one look at Meeker’s slide above and one can’t help but notice that these large companies come to define the cycles she represents. Is that a convenient way we recall changes or were strategic changes part of a causal relationship? Don’t be so quick to judge. There’s a significant amount of subtlety and nuance.

Let’s look at some of the specific speakers.

Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Intel’s Brian Krzanich both sit in the hot seat (the red chairs that define the #codecon set) with the same question so it is worth considering them together—what happened with respect to mobile and tablets. Satya talked about wishing to have taken the bet to build hardware all the way, sooner. Intel talked about the challenges in manufacturing at 14nm, not having the right product relative to power and the need to do better at 10nm. Mossberg kicked off Brian’s interview with the observation that he’s using a laptop half as frequently and using ARM based products a great deal. In a moment of candor, Brian talked about how many at Intel wished that the march towards mobility would have stopped at Ultrabooks and that Intel lacked the right parts to do tablets, which many at Intel did not think tablets would break out beyond consumption. I felt Brian’s comments showed a good acknowledgement about why things didn’t happen. At the same time, collectively the view of a strategy in the near to medium term didn’t come through. In eerily similar approaches, both Intel and Microsoft looked to a future beyond phones and tablets to an internet of things or more personal computing as where they will see greater success. I left both of these sessions feeling there was more to be told about where things are right now and what will happen over the next year or two (again not the features but the strategy—Microsoft and tablets small and large, Intel and mobile or even Chrome and Android). It isn’t that nothing was said, it was that everyone knows where things are today and the speakers know everyone knows, and the upside to keeping things close to the vest seems minimal and equates to “go with the disruptors” at some level.

One must admit that the challenge faced by Wal-Mart’s Doug McMillon is even greater in this audience which has few Walmart regulars (note, I shop at Walmart). In particular, many in this crowd are on the leading edge of home delivery and uber-for-everything and so visiting stores is already a thing of the past. That said, so much of what was said about online commerce felt too much like an expected incumbent response. For example, the idea that the lines are blurring between ecommerce and retail or that it is really hard to measure ecommerce if a person looked up an item on their mobile device before coming to the store (I wondered if there really was a metric that tried to give credit internally to the ecommerce division if someone did that). Ultimately, Doug said “physical still matters and digital makes it more valuable”. Maybe, except the last morning of the show I ordered a wall mount for the Sonos speaker we received at the show (yes elite gifts are part of the elite show) and it beat me home. Yes that is a luxury good and more, but to put forward the notion that ecommerce is still an add-on to physical stores seemed tricky for me.

Comcast’s Brian Roberts not only faces the challenge of cord cutters represented in the audience or the prospects of dealing with questions on net neutrality, but also just the fact that a lot of people have a lot of less than positive feelings about the products and services Comcast offers. When you look at Comcast as an incumbent and consider things like Netflix, Hulu, cord cutting, and more as the disruptive force it is very tough to see the dialog Brian led as satisfying. My feeling was that there is a strong response to keep everything as it is, while putting forward a notion that things are improving.  There was a long demonstration of the X1 cable box. Yet in the same session when questioned about net neutrality, Brian said that it is too bad that Netflix should pay a cost of doing business as he has to pay for cableboxes. I think that they love the cablebox (evidence, it seems to be an incredible headache to get cablecards and very costly to switch to TiVo and the rent for cable boxes is pretty high). The fact that they spent 10 minutes doing a demo on the new platform seemed to indicate that—yet the platform has none of the elements of a modern platform relative to apps or openness as was asked by an attendee. The responses to questions about net neutrality seemed to show a strong desire to avoid change while at the same time not acknowledging a changing world and changing needs of what is going on relative to connectivity. The overall dialog around Netflix seemed harsh to me and it failed to consider just how much more pleasant (and modern) Netflix is as a consumer than the X1 experience shown. Disclaimer: I have had really significant problems with Comcast in our new place and having never used them before; this is my first time as a customer. As I have no choice for video or broadband, one could say it is challenging for me to be totally objective.

Each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better.

Each of these CEOs and companies have enormously challenging jobs and situations. Having shareholders demanding consistent quarter by quarter results, customers who do not really want change from these service providers but seek change elsewhere, and massive organizations to change all make for the potential of no-win interviews. Yet, each also stuck to revealing little, defending the status quo, and offering a view of the future that is the same but better. My own experience and learning would offer than when facing massive disruptive challenges, engaging in the dialog serves all parties better even though the normal school of thought for the incumbent is to double-down, stick to talking points, and only reveal challenges through the lens of opportunity.


Several CEOs represented the leading edge of disruption. It is super easy to be a fan of disruption and to look at all that is going well with these leaders just as it is easy to look at all the challenges the incumbents face. At the same time, these disruptions are also representative of a new level of frankness and openness about what they face or have faced.

More than the great work these leaders represent, I think it is important to look at how each is communicating and participating in a dialog. One might suggest that when these leaders are under pressure or face challenges of being disrupted they will start to take on the characteristics demonstrated above. I don’t think that is the case, simply because several of these leaders have already faced (or are facing) these challenges in their business. While clearly disruptors have less to lose, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that some of these represent large public companies (not mega cap, but large) and all represent very large customer bases from consumer to enterprise.

It was exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going

For me, it was exciting to watch these interviews and how these leaders took on their own challenges. It was also exciting to see these leaders head to the future, demonstrate a unique point of view, and engage in a two-way dialog about where things are going.

Let’s look at some of these speakers.

Uber’s Travis Kalanick is arguably the most used and mission critical service for the attendees. The love for the service runs deep. Equally deep is the love for how Uber is taking on the government in the regulation of taxis and ride sharing (along with Lyft, an a16z portfolio company). At the same time, Travis faces a lot of questions about his aggressive style and reputation. He didn’t hold back, characterizing the task ahead at Uber as “a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.” OK, probably a bit colorful. What I loved was how he embraced even the disruption to his own business. After seeing a truly autonomous car from Google the night before we heard the CEO of Uber telling us that self-driving cars are the future, not drivers. Considering that Uber is a marketplace for drivers, this embrace of your own disruption is great to see.

Most people expected a characteristically polite interview by Softbank’s Masayoshi Son-san, but were treated to candor and aggressiveness, though in a very polite way. This would be consistent with the amazing success Softbank and Yahoo BB had in Japan ten plus years ago bringing amazing broadband and low prices to a market easily dominate by the goliaths like NTT (the most visible building from the Shinjuku train station is the DoCoMo tower). Son-san told the story of starting Yahoo BB and “how they had: No experience, No technology, No capital. Just anger.” This was a true disruptor story, much like Uber’s story of realigning city government only at a national scale. While it was not so challenging to be candid about WiMax, Son-san was super clear about the failed technological approach. He was clear about the intention to go after broadband in the US with the same zeal he went after it in Japan.

Salesforce and Workday (Marc Benioff / Aneel Bhusri) together offered an incredibly clear view of disruption at the enterprise software level. If there’s one interview to watch, I would suggest this one because it has so much relevance to how software is made and brought to market from two CEOs who made and brought to market software in a previous generation. These are CEOs learning from their experience who have also engaged the marketplace differently as disruptors. There were many statements that are starting to seem less and less “bold” but nevertheless remain monumentally disruptive: “in a few years no one will run business software on premises”, “I run the company from a smartphone”, “if you’re going to build a cloud app you need to start from a clean sheet of paper—there’s no way around it”, “incumbents are holding on to the past and basically trying to monetize it”, “90% of the company can do all of HR on a smartphone” and so on. There were many profound elements of the dialog that revealed the depth of the strategic and technological shift these leaders are both creating and have experienced. For example, there was a description of competing with an incumbent like SAP who would go to a customer, negotiate a $40M deal to “upgrade” and then wait two years to get the latest features or start to use a SaaS model and the new features just show up. Yes there’s a ton of complexity in there and yes it is horribly disruptive to how businesses operate, but so was the introduction of the PC, client/server (upon which that $40M upgrade was based) and more. Finally, the discussion about being in a “post-server” world resonated with me as I just don’t see it as viable for companies to be building out their own data centers and this session provided a lot of evidence as to what these vendors are doing to make that a realistic assertion. From a format perspective I love the adjacency of these two and wish a couple of the incumbents were paired together.

Dropbox’s Drew Houston brought innovation, competition, and regulatory oversight into focus with his interview. This is another service that many people in the room not only use but rely on and that brings with it a degree of comfort and also a challenge in that the audience knows a lot about the services represented. Not content to simply reiterate what was previously known and said about the company, Drew talked about the genuine frustration he represents as a cloud provider learning about the revelation that the NSA tapped into cloud based services. It would have been easy to lay low but instead made the quip that the “NSA doesn’t send a muffin basket and say welcome”.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings represents learning and the learning from disruption incredibly well and can also be chronicled in his own appearances in the hot seat. Sometimes we forget that Netflix has been a public company for 12 years, to the day of this interview! For many of us it seems like ancient history that we used to get plastic discs in the mail and then return them Monday morning. Netflix is famously known for having disrupted itself and not with grace while on a path to streaming and today’s Orange is the New Black. I found the discussion looking backwards to missed opportunities and disruption absolutely fascinating. Reed talked about how the team would discuss “managing to the point of feeling like your skin crawled” and making decisions that were unbelievably difficult. While given the success right now, perhaps it is less difficult to look backwards at the challenges faced and mistakes made. It was amazing to hear this level of candor. Reed was even candid about something he said just a short time ago about the high price of Netflix stock which he said at the time was too high and represented a euphoria. In contrast to Comcast, Reed was much clearer about the net neutrality issues are playing out—he used a great example of Comcast trying to charge at both ends (both for the consumer and the internet service) by talking about the flow of money through the system. He offered an operational view of “strong net neutrality”. Putting aside the specifics of the issue, the tone of looking forward, candor about the past, expression of a clear point of view, and a view of delivering new products and services along with the inherent risks and challenges comes across as modern and consistent with a new style of leadership.

What comes next?

It might be too easy to read this and conclude big companies are legacy and being disrupted and new companies disrupt, but that would ignore two things.

First, this is a moment in time. While some would say disruption is akin to physics and must happen, there are dominant companies that reinvent themselves. Few even recall that IBM was close to bankruptcy when it reinvented itself from one dominant company to another, albeit in a very different way. And that reinvention progressed through nearly 20 years and returned 7X the broad stock market overall during that time.

Second, companies that disrupt are themselves prone to disruption down the road. We haven’t seen this dynamic play out yet for the companies here (though Netflix might be one). There is also a great deal of learning about how to reinvent and avoid the risk of being locked into a strategy and execution. Google doing the unthinkable of shutting down services or Facebook acquiring very large scale indirect competitors or technology complements are examples of a new generation of leaders acting differently relative to the potential disruption of core businesses.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high.

Nothing is quite inevitable in business, but the potential to fall into familiar patterns is high. This past week at #codecon demonstrated the challenges and approaches to the core risk of the technology industry. In technology, the only thing you really do is monetize the work of the past and deliver innovation to the future. How leaders approach this reality is an evolving skill and #codecon allows us all to witness this evolution firsthand.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 1, 2014 at 11:30 am

Posted in posts, recode

Tagged with , ,

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