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Patience, IoT Is the New “Electronic”

photoThe “Internet of Things” or IoT is cool.  I know this because everyone tells everyone else how cool it is. Ask anyone and they will give you their own definition of what IoT means and why it is cool. That’s proof we are using a buzzword or are in a hype-cycle.

Much is at stake to benefit from, contribute to, or even control this next, next-generation of computing. If a company benefitted from 300 million PCs a year, that’s quite cool. If another company benefitted from 1 billion smartphones a year, then that’s pretty cool.

You know what is really cool, benefitting from 75 billion devices. That certainly explains the enthusiasm for the catch phrase.

Missing out on this wave is uncool. Just take a look at the CNBC screen shot to the left. That’s what we talked about in the Digital Innovation class at HBS last week and what motivated this post.

In an effort to quantify the opportunity, claim leadership, or just be included amongst those who “get it” we are all collectively missing the fact that we really don’t know how this will play out in any micro sense. It is safe to say everything will be connected to the internet. That’s about it.  As Benedict Evans says, counting connected devices is a lot like counting how many electric motors are in your home. In the first days this was cool. Today, that seems silly. Benedict’s excellent post also goes into details asking many good questions about what being connected might mean and here I enhance our in-class discussion.

One way to view the history of “devices” is through two generations in the 20th century. For the first 50 years we had “analog motor” devices that replaced manual mechanical devices. This was the age of convenience brought by motors of all kinds from giant gas motors that produced electricity to tiny DC motors that powered household gadgets and everything in between. People very quickly learned the benefits of using motors to enhance manual effort. Though if you don’t think it was a generational shift, consider the reactions to the first labor saving home appliances (see Disney’s Carousel of Progress).

The next 50 years was about “digital electronics” which began with the diode, then the transistor, and then the microprocessor. What is amazing about this transition is how many decades past before the full transformation took place. Early on electronics replaced analog variants. Often these were viewed as luxuries at best, or inferior “gadgets” at worse. I recall my father debating with a car dealer the merits of “electronic fuel injection”. Many of us reading this certainly recall (or still believe) the debate over the quality of digital music relative to analog LP and cassette. Interestingly, the benefit we all experience today of size, weight, power consumption, portability, and more took years to gain acceptance. We used to think about “repairing” a VCR and how awful it was that you could not repair a DVD player. Go figure. The key innovation insight is that the benefits of electronics took decades to play out and were not readily apparent to all at the start.

We find ourselves at the start of a generation of invention where everything is connected. We are at the early stages where we are connecting things that we can connect, just like we added motors to replace the human turning the crank on a knitting loom. Some inventions have the magic of the portable radio—freedom and portability. Some seem as gimmicky as that blender.

Here are a few things we all know and love today that have already been transformed by “first generation” connectivity:

Analog	Electronic	Connected Carburetor	Electronic Fuel Injection	Tesla charging platform Film	CCD camera	Netflix, GoPro Cassette	MP3 player	Spotify, Pandora Compass	GPS	Google Maps Incandescent	Fluorescent	LED systems Bimetal thermostat	Honeywell thermostat	Nest Television	VCR	TiVo, Dish, Slingbox

For the next few years, thousands of innovators will embark on the idea maze (Chris Dixon summarizes Balaji Srinivasan’s lecture). This is not just about product-market fit, but about much more basic questions. Every generational change in technology introduces a phase of crazy inventing, and that is where we are today with IoT.

This means that for the next couple of years most every product or invention, at first glance, might seem super cool (to some) and crazy to most everyone else. Then after a little use or analysis, more sober minds will prevail. The journey through the idea maze and engineering realities will continue.

This also means that every “thing” introduced will be met with skepticism of the broader, less tech-enthused, market (like our diverse classroom). Every introduction will seem more expensive, more complex, more superfluous than what is currently in use. In fact it is likely that even the ancillary benefits of being connected will be lost on most everyone.

That almost reads like the definition of innovator’s dilemma. Nothing sums this up more than how people talk about smart “watches”, connected thermostats, or robots. One either immediately sees the utility of strapping to your wrist a sub-optimal smartphone you have to charge midday or you ask why you can’t just look at your phone’s lock screen for the time. One looks at Nest thermostat and asks why paying 10X for the luxury of having a professional HVAC installer get stumped or having to “train” something you set and forget is such a good idea.

We find ourselves in the midst of a generational change in the technology base upon which everything is built. It used to be that owning an “electric” or “electronic” thing sounded modern and cool, well because they were so unique.  That’s why adding “connected” or “smart” to a product is going to sound about as silly as saying “transistor radio” or “electronic oven”.

Every thing will be connected. The thing is we, collectively, have neither mastered connecting a thing without some downside (cost, weight, complexity) nor even figured out what we would do when  something is connected. What are the equivalents of size, weight, reliability, ease of manufacturing, and more when it comes to connectivity? Today we do the “obvious” such as use the cloud for remote relay, access, storage. We write an app to control something over WiFi rather than build in a physical user interface. We collect and analyze data to inform usage or future products. There is more to come. How will devices be connected to each other? How will third parties improve the usage of things and just make them better? Where do we put the “smarts” in a thing when we have thousands of things? How might we find we are safer, healthier, faster, and even just happier?

We just don’t know yet. What we do know is that a lot of entrepreneurs and innovators across companies are going to try things out and incrementally get us to a new connected world, which in a few years will just be the world.

The Internet of Things is not about the things or even the platform the same way we thought about motors or microprocessors. The big winners in IoT will be thinking about an entirely different future, not just connecting to things we already use today in ways we already use them.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 2, 2015 at 11:30 am

Posted in posts

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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

CES: Ingredients Not Just Products

Screen Shot 2015-01-10 at 10.21.19 PMCES is an incredibly exciting and energizing show to attend. Sometimes, if you track some of the real-time coverage you might get a sense of disappointment at the lack of breakthrough products or the seemingly endless repetition from many companies making the same thing. There’s a good reason for all this repetition and it is how CES represents our healthy industry working well.

CES is best viewed not as a display of new products to run out and buy but as a display of ingredients for future products. It is great to go to CES and see the latest TVs, displays, or in-car systems. By and large there is little news in these in-market products and categories. It is also great to see the forward-looking vision presentations from the big companies. Similarly, these are good directionally but often don’t represent what you can act on reliably.

Taking an ingredients view, one (along with 140,000 others) can look across the over 2 million feet of 3,600 exhibitors for where things are heading (CES is one of the top trade shows globally, with CeBIT, Photokina, and Computex all vying for top ranking depending on how you count).

If you take a product view, CES can get repetitive or boring rather quickly. I probably saw a dozen selfie-sticks. After a while, every curved 4K TV looks the same. And certainly, there’s a limit to how many IP cameras the market can support. After a few decades you learn to quickly spot the me-too and not dwell on the repetition.

It is worth a brief description of why CES is filled with so many me-too (and often poorly executed) products.

Consider the trio of partners it takes to bring a product to market:

  • Component suppliers. These are the companies that make a specific sensor, memory, screen, chipset, CCD, radio, etc.
  • Manufacturers. These are the companies that pull together all the components and packaging needed to make a product. These are OEMs or ODMs in the consumer electronics industry.
  • Brands and Channels. These are the consumer-visible manifestation of products and can be the chain of retailers or a retail brand.

At any one time, a new component, an innovation or invention, is close to ready to be in the market. An example might be a new heart rate sensor. In order to get the cost of the component low enough for consumer products, the component supplier searches out for a manufacturer to make a device.

While every supplier dreams of landing a major company making millions of units as a first customer that never happens. Instead, there’s a whole industry of companies that will take a component and build what you might think of as a product with a 1:1 mapping of that new component. So a low-cost CCD gets turned into a webcam with simple Wi-Fi integration (and often some commodity level software). The companies that make these are constantly looking to make new products and will gladly make a limited production run and sell at a relatively low margin for a short time. These initial orders help the component makers scale up manufacturing and improve the component through iteration.

At the same time there are retailers and brand names that are always looking to leverage their brand with additional products. These brand names often take the complete product from the manufacturer with some limited amount of branding and customization. This is why you can often see almost identical products with different names. Many know that a few vendors make most LED displays, yet the number of TV brands is quite high. There’s a small amount of customization that takes place in this step. These companies also work off relatively low margins and expect to invest in a limited way. For new categories, while the component companies get to scale out parts, the brands and channels get a sense of the next big thing with limited investments.

So while CES might have a ton of non-differentiated “products”, what you are really seeing is the supply chain at work. In fact it is working extremely well as this whole process is getting more and more optimized. The component manufacturers are now making proof of concepts that almost encroach onto the manufacturers and some brands are going straight to component makers. For the tech enthusiast these might be undifferentiated or even poor products, but for many they serve the purpose at least in the short-term.

Today, some things we take for granted that at one time seemed to swarm the CES show floor with dozens of low quality builds and me-too products include: cameras, flash memory, media playback devices, webcams, Wi-Fi routers, hard drive cages, even tablets and PCs. I recall one CES where I literally thought the entire industry had shifted to making USB memory sticks as there must have been 100 booths showing the latest in 128MB sticks. Walking away, the only thing I could conclude was just how cheap and available these were going to be soon. Without the massive wave of consumer me-too digital cameras that once ruled the show floor, we would not have today’s GoPro and Dropcam.

An astute observer can pick out the me-too products and get a sense for what ingredients will be available and where they are on the price / maturity curve. One can also gauge the suppliers who are doing the most innovative integrations and manufacturing.

Sometimes the whole industry gets it wrong. The most recent example of this would be 3D TV, which just doesn’t seem to be catching on.

Other times the whole industry gets excited about something but others take that direction and pivot it to much more interesting and innovative products. An example of this would be the run of “media boxes” to attach to your TV which went from playing content stored on your home network and local hard drives to stateless, streaming players like Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire and Apple TV. Without those first media boxes, it isn’t clear we would have seen the next generation which took that technology and re-thought it in the context of the internet and cloud.

Finally, the reality is that most of the manufacturers tend to take a new component and build out a purpose-built device to surround that component. So they might take a camera sensor and add a camera body and just make a point-and-shoot. They might take new flash storage and turn it into portable storage. They might take a new display and just make complete monitor. Rarely will the first generation of devices attempt to do multiple things or take a multi-year approach to integrated product development—not on those margins and timelines.

Some technologies this year that reflect first generation products and are likely to be brought to scale or further integrated with other components include: curved displays, high resolution/high DPI displays, human and environmental sensors, and HDR imaging. Sensors will be the most interesting as they will clearly be drawn into the SoC and/or integrated with each other. Obviously, everyone can expect Wi-Fi and broadband connectivity to continue to get smaller and easier and of course CPUs will continue to shrink, draw less power, and get faster.

So when you read the stories about CES saying there are too many junky products or so many of the exact same thing, don’t think of that as a negative. Instead, think about how that might be the next low-price, high-scale ingredient that will be integrated into your product or another product.

Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 10, 2015 at 10:00 pm

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Apps: Shrapnel v. Bloatware

imageMuch is being said lately about the trend to unbundle capabilities for the web and apps. Is this a new trend, a pendulum, or another stage in the evolution of providing software solutions for work and life? Are we going to learn what some would say are lessons from a past generation of software and avoid bloatware? Perhaps we will relive some of the experiences from that era and our phones and tablets will be littered with app shrapnel as our PCs once were?

My own personal experience in product choices is marked by a near constant tension over not just bundle v. unbundle from a product perspective, but also from a business perspective. Whether on development tools, Office, Windows, or internet services I’ve experienced the unbundle <> bundle dynamic. I’ve bundled, unbundled, and had the “internal” debates about what to do when, what went well or not. If you’re interested in an early debate about bundling Office you can see the Harvard case study on the choice of “best of breed v. suite” in Finding the Suite Spot ($).

The Pendulum

This HBR article does a good job of bringing forth some of the history and describing the challenges of positioning unbundle/bundle as both a binary choice and a pendulum or Krebs-like cycle of resource conservation. Marc Andreessen does a great job in these two tweetstorms of detailing the bundle/unbundle cycle on the internet and the computer history we both grew up with (http://tweetstorm.io/user/pmarca/481554165454209027 and http://tweetstorm.io/user/pmarca/481739410895941632).

There’s one maxim in business that drives so much of the back and forth or pendulum behavior we tend to see, which is that most strategies have a complementary approach (vertical v. horizontal, direct v. indirect, integrate v. distinct, first v. third-party, product org v. discipline org, quantitative v. qualitative performance evaluation, hack v. plan, etc.) So in business depending on your roots or your history, and most importantly the context you find yourself, you are going down a path of one of more of these attributes.

Over time your competition tends to pick you apart the other way or ways. Equally likely, your ecosystem builds up around you innovating in parts where you are weaker, gaining strength, and showing off new approaches to product or market. Certainly, if you’re a new company entering an established market you will not just copy the approach of the incumbent which is why new products seem to be at the other end of one of these spectrums.

Then as you get in trouble you look around and try to figure out what to do. There’s a good chance the organization will double down on the approach that has always worked—after all as Christensen says, that is the natural energy force in an organization. That happens until a big moment of change (a major competitive success, leadership change, etc.) and then you change approaches. More often than not, your choice is to do the thing you weren’t doing before. If you’re around in the workforce long enough, you start to see things as a series of these evolutionary steps.

This is business, context is everything. There’s never a right answer in absolute, only a right answer given the context.

The moments of change, of breaking the cycle or swinging back the other way, are the moments that unleash significant improvements in the work, the product, or the workplace.

History and Customers

As consumers we adopt new technologies without realizing or thinking about whether they are bundled or unbundled, and our choices and selections for one or other are highly dependent on the context at the time. There are times when bundling is essential to the distribution of technology, just as there are times when unbundling brings with it more choice, flexibility, and opportunity. Obviously the same holds for businesses buying products, only businesses have purchasing power that can make bundled things appear unbundled or vice versa.
It is worth considering a few tech examples:

  • Autos began with minimal electronics, followed by optional electronics, then increasingly elaborate integrated electronics and many now think that smartphones will be the best device for in-car electronics/apps (for example the BMW i series).
  • LinkedIn began as a network for professionals to list their credentials and connect to others professionally. Recently it has bundled more and more content-based functionality.
  • Mobile telephony used to have distinct local, long distance, text and then data plans, which have now been bundled into all-you-can-consume multi-device plans.
  • Word processing used to have optional spell-checking and mail merge which was then bundled into single products which were then subsequently bundled into suites and also now bundle cloud services. Similarly, financial spreadsheets, data analysis, and charting were previously distinct efforts that are now bundled. Today we are seeing new tools that have different feature sets and approaches, representing some unbundling and some bundling.
  • Operating systems were once highly hardware dependent, then abstracted from hardware but with optional graphical interfaces, followed by a period of bundling of OS+Graphics, followed by a bundling of OS, graphical interface, and hardware in a single package. Today with services we’re seeing different combinations of bundling and unbundling innovations.
  • Microprocessors have been on a fairly continuous bundling effort relative to peripherals, graphics, and even storage.
  • Modern smartphones are a wonder of bundling, first at the hardware level (SoC packaging) followed by hardware+software, then through all the devices that were previously distinct (GPS, still camera, video camera, pedometer, game controller, USB storage, and more).

There are countless examples depending on what level in the full consumer offering is being considered (i.e. product, price, place, promotion). Considering just these examples, one can easily see the positives and potential pitfalls of any of these.

Yet in looking these examples and others, one can make a few observations about how customers and teams approach bundling choices for products and services:

  • People like distinct products when exploring new capabilities and product teams like building single purpose tools early in product lifecycle, out of both focus and necessity/resources.
  • People like it when their favorite product adds features that previously required a separate product, especially when their favorite product is growing in usage. Product teams love to add more features to existing products when those features map to obvious needs.
  • People have some threshold for when an integrated product turns into an overwhelming product, but that “line in the sand” is impossible to define a priori and depends a great deal on how products are evolving around your product. Mobile phone plans today are great, but many are very unhappy with Cable TV bundles.
  • Competition can come from a bundle that you were previously not considering **or** competition can come from unbundling the product you make.
  • Product managers often reach a point where they can no longer solve the problem of adding new features while seeing them get used and also getting credit for innovating.
  • Macro factors can radically alter your own views of what could/should be bundled. If your business does not have a software component and your competitors add one, attempting to bundle that functionality could be quite challenging (technically, organizationally). If the platform you target (autos, spectrum, screens) undergoes a major change in capability then so too does your view of bundling or unbundling.

These examples and observations make one thing perfectly clear: whether to bundle or unbundle features depends a great deal on context and customer scenarios and so the choices require a great deal of product management thought. The path to bundle or unbundle is not linear, predictable, or reactionary but a genuine opportunity and need for solid product thought.

Strategic questions

On the one hand, considering whether to bundle or unbundle innovations might just be “do what we can that is differentiated”. In practice there are some key strategy questions that come up time and time again when talking to product folks.

  • Discoverability. The most critical strategic question to bundle or unbundle is whether the new work will be discoverable by intended customers. In a new product, the early waves of innovative features often make sense bundled. Over time, just responding to customers means you’ll be bundling in new capabilities (whether organic or competitive).
  • Usability. When faced with a new feature or business approach, the usability of this approach is a key factor in your choice. If you’re unable to develop a user experience that permits successful execution of the desired outcome, then it doesn’t really matter whether your bundled or unbundled.
  • Depth. When making the choice to bundle or unbundle you have to think through how much you plan on innovating in the spaces. If you’re setting yourself up for a long-term head to head on depth versus believing you are “checking a box” you have different choices. Incumbents often view the best path to fending off a disruptive unbundled feature as adding a checkbox to compete (to avoid the trauma of a major change in approach). Marketing often has an urgency that drives a need for market response and that can be represented as an unbundled “add-on that no one cares about” or “a checkbox that can be communicated” — that might sound cynical until you’ve been through a sales cycle losing out to a “feature as a product”.
  • Business economics. If you charge directly for your product or service (or freemium), then there will be a strong incentive to bundle more and more into your existing offering. Sales will generally prefer to add more features at the current price. Marketing will potentially advocate for a new pricing level to increase revenue. If you choose to unbundle and develop a new product, side-by-side or companion, then you’ll need to consider what your attach rate might be. A bundled solution essentially sees a 100% attach rate to your existing product whereas a whole new product brings with it the need to generate demand and subsequent purchase or usage. An advertising-based service will see increased surface area for an unbundled solution but will also dilute usage. A web-based service allows for cross-linking and easy connection between two different properties, but apps will require separate downloads and minimal cross-app connections.
  • Usage economics. It might sound strange separating out business from usage, since especially in a SaaS world they are the same thing. In practice, if you’re revenue is tied to usage directly (page views, transactions, etc.) then your design needs to factor in how you measure and drive usage of the features, bundled or unbundled. If you’re economics are not tied directly to usage you will have more strategic latitude to consider how your offering plays out bundled v. unbundled (assuming your boss lets you keep working on something no one uses).

Product management approach

Should you add that new feature or capability to your existing product or should you create a new destination (app, site)? Should you break out a feature because unbundling is the new normal or will that just break everything? Those are the core questions any PM faces as a product grows.

One tip: do not claim that one approach (bundle v. unbundle) is good for users and the other approach is only good for business. In other words, bundle v. unbundle cannot be distilled down to pro-user or anti-user, or more importantly marketing v. product. The best product people know that context is everything and that positioning a choice as A against B is counter productive—everyone is on the same team and has the same broad goals. As difficult as it is, working through these questions with as much dialog as possible and as much “walk in the other’s shoes” is absolutely critical.

There are many natural forces at play that will drive one way or another.

For example, most organic product development will tend to expand the existing product as it builds on the infrastructure and momentum already present.

Most new acquisitions will tend towards acquiring unbundled solutions, aka competition, though in the enterprise space one can expect significant calls to integrate even disparate technologies.

Part of being a good PM is to step back and go through a thoughtful process about whether to bundle or unbundle new capabilities. The following are some design choices.

  • Advertising new features in proportion to expected usage. There’s a general view to advertise a new feature in the UX in an excessively prominent manner. You want people to know you fixed or added a feature. At the unbundle extreme this means a whole new app and a trend to shrapnel. In the bundle extreme this means a big UX to drive you to a new thing. The most critical choice is really making sure that you are designing the access to the feature to be in relative proportion to how much you expect your customer base to use something.
  • Plan for “n+1” in all experience choices. As you make the choice to bundle or unbundle, know ahead of time that this will not be the first place you make this choice. If you’re adding a new app today then chances are that will become the way you solve things down the road. If you’re adding new UX access to a feature then plan on more depth in that feature or more peer features. Is the choice you are making scalable for the growth in creativity and innovation you expect?
  • Integrate or connect in one direction, not both. If you bundle or unbundle there will be a relentless push to promote the connection between elements of the product or service. Demo flows, top-level UX, even deep linking between apps. At some extreme if you bundle n items, it might not be unrealistic to go down a path where every n is connected to every other n-1 and vice versa. This is incredibly common in line of business apps/modules.
  • Bundle and innovate, don’t bundle and deprecate. If you make a choice to bundle a capability into your mainline effort, do not bundle it to make it go away. Bundle it and think of it as just as important as other things you do. This dynamic appears when your competition does something you don’t like so you hope to have a checkbox and make the competitor go away. This never happens.
  • Designing for good enough leaves you open to disruption. Closely related to deprecating while bundling is the idea that a “tie is a win”. Once you’re established you often think that you can continue to win against a competitor with an integrated implementation that is “good enough”. That might work in short-term marketing but over time, if the area is important you’ll lose.
  • Expect hardware to be relentlessly bundled. If you connect to hardware in any way, then you’ll be faced with a relentless march towards bundling. Hardware naturally bundles because of the economics of manufacturing, the surplus of transistors, and the need to reduce power and surface area. Never bet on hardware or peripherals staying unbundled for long.
  • Expanding software depth is easy, but breadth often adds more value. Engineers and product managers love to round out features, add more depth, more customization, and more incremental improvements. This is where the customer feedback loop is really clear. In terms of growing the business and attracting new customers, expansion in breadth is almost always a better approach so long as you “bundle” features that seem natural. Over indexing on depth, particularly early in a product life-cycle leaves you open to a competitor that does you plus other valuable things, no matter how much you think you’re unbundling approach is cleaner and simpler.
  • Defined categories do not remain defined for long. In enterprise products the “category” or “magic quadrant” is everything. In practice, these very definitions are always in transition. Be in the lookout for being redefined by an action of bundling or unbundling.
  • Assume sales and marketing will prefer new capability to be bundled, or maybe not. Finally to highlight how contextual this is, there is no default as to how outbound efforts will prefer you approach the problem. It is not necessarily the opposite of what you are doing or the same as a competitor. For example, if your sales force economics are such that they are strongly connected to a single product and sales motion, it will be clear that bundling will be preferred no matter what a competitor is up to. At an extreme, even an unbundled feature will be used as a closer or a discount, particularly in the enterprise. Conversely, even if your competition is highly bundled, you’re own outbound efforts might be structured such that unbundling is a competitive and sales win. You just never know. Most importantly, the first reaction isn’t the way to base your approach—spend the time to engage and debate.

To bundle or unbundle is a complex question that goes beyond the simplistic view that minimal design makes for good products. Take the time to engage broadly across the team, organization, and to project forward where you want to be as these are some of the most critical design choices you will make.

–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi

 

Written by Steven Sinofsky

June 28, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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The Price Is Right: For Early-Stage SaaS Companies, It Needs To Be

TPIRWordmarkNothing is more critical to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business than pricing strategy. Pricing is the moment of truth for a new product … and doubly so when it is a company’s first product. But far more often than not, I’ve observed new startups leaving “money on the table” when it comes to pricing enterprise products. I’ve seen founders say their product saves hundreds of thousands of dollars — yet their product is priced as if it’s only saving thousands of dollars.

One reason for this is assuming the need to price and program similarly to competitive products. With a potentially disruptive product, however, falling into the trap of pricing like a legacy competitor not only leaves money on the table — but it could fail to surface your differentiation. Said another way, your product is your price and how you price your product reflects value from the buyer perspective as well as what your company believes is valuable. SaaS products also have the advantage that they are priced not just for the service they offer, but for the potential of saving massive capex/opex spent directly by the customer.

From your business perspective, SaaS products have a level of stickiness that would be the envy of the packaged-and on-premise software generation.

Since the uncertainty and social science aspects of pricing can be uncomfortable, especially for technical founders, here is a framework — from the perspective of a product manager — to consider when pricing new SaaS products. The product manager role is critical in SaaS because the ability to fine-tune the monetization of the product is closely tied to its features and implementation. The product needs to be designed with such flexibility in mind when it comes to making features available, prioritizing features, or even just choosing where to spend engineering time.

Just remember that “business isn’t physics”, as Bill Gurley notes in his excellent post on some of the metrics here. Andreessen Horowitz also has a detailed primer on understanding SaaS valuations as great background for pricing discussions. Because pricing is math, there’s a tendency to create the spreadsheet model and assume it will all work. But there’s also a ton of psychology that comes into play: beyond math, pricing involves judgment, vision, and flexibility.

How do you solve an unsolvable problem? Bound it.

In a new business, it’s easy to spend money, but the combination of a new product and the unknown cost of acquiring customers leads to an “unsolvable” problem. One approach is to take lean/iterative methods and apply them to finding the right pricing fit. This post is about a framework to arrive at such early prices, which will change. (This is very different from what happens in an existing company with existing customers, where you really only get one shot at pricing something right).

The business side of SaaS involves a complex array of variables such as customer lifetime value (LTV), customer/subscriber acquisition cost (CAC), average revenue per user (ARPU), cost of goods sold (COGS), and churn; as well as pricing models such as freemium, tiered, and time based. Then, depending on whether you’re targeting consumers or enterprises, there are very different sales models that influence your pricing approach (for example, business products invite complexity, especially when dealing with purchasing managers). Similarly, the product side of SaaS is a complex set of equations related to usage patterns, scenarios, and variable costs of a large number of resources.

The most critical costs are related to customer acquisition and sales/marketing expense — which can appear to erase any potential for profit by traditional accounting measures — so the key to early-stage SaaS businesses is to focus on understanding customer acquisition costs relative to the estimated long term value of a customer. Since we don’t know how much it will cost to acquire a customer yet, we will just have to move forward assuming some budget (along with some allocation for margin in the ultimate price relative to this long term value). This post focuses on the pricing models relative to product and features and assumes a higher level view of customer acquisition costs and long term value.

One way to approach this is to establish upper and lower bounds on pricing:

A lower bound for your pricing

The lower bound represents your costs to serve a customer your product. One common example is the basic costs of spinning up the IaaS/PaaS elements of what you do — creating accounts, allocating minimal resources, other infrastructure, and then subsequent usage.

It might be convenient to think of this lower bound as what you could offer for “free” to some customers. You might make some assumptions about the use of variable resources such as compute, egress, storage, etc. in order to arrive at this lower bound. (Note, since this is a product-centric view these bounds are absent the allocation for fixed and variable costs outside the product/technology, so do not not include opex, S&M, etc.)

It is important to understand this bound across the full breadth of your product. While you might initially view some features as “premium”, you also want to assume that over time capabilities will migrate from advanced to essential and you will fill in new features at the top. I think it is a good exercise to consider the full product as a base case initially.

An upper bound for your pricing

The upper bound represents your costs to serve a “depth” user: in this case, the customer using the parts of your product that drive ongoing costs to scale (for example, this customer is using increasingly more bandwidth, storage, or compute). Now this is where you can look at what you offer relative to your competition, and want to understand if you have scale attributes that are better/worse/same. By knowing this you can begin to separate out variables for your model.

Presumably in developing your product, you created a unique architectural approach relative to existing competitors. Do you scale better for more tenants, use storage more effectively, or maybe your mobile app is more efficient at bandwidth? The importance of knowing your own strengths and weaknesses will inform what variables to use in your pricing.

You can also think of your upper bound as a competitive foil — the stronger you are on some attribute, the more you should use this attribute to differentiate your offering. This might allow you to charge more for capabilities that are just too expensive for your competition.

These are the core attributes for pricing

When you’re pricing a new offering, it is worth understanding where your product is today relative to a core set of potential pricing attributes.

Whether it is Bronze/Silver/Gold, Free/Select/Premium, Trial/Select/Premium, or Individual/Business/Enterprise, the norm for SaaS is to offer a “3xN” matrix of 3 pricing plans and N attributes — as inthese examples. The more mature a SaaS product, the more rows and columns its matrix has. (One SaaS product I researched had five top-level features organized into an array of 27 price points based on combinations of the three to five of the features and number of users.)

A broad range of SaaS products can be considered across the following core service attributes:

Features

If your product lends itself to dividing the features themselves — such as import/export, visualization, view/edit, or connectivity to other products — into good-better-best then differentiating price points here might work. In a freemium model, dividing must-have features among free v. paid users can be a customer-hostile way to differentiate or optimize pricing, so beware.

The reason to hesitate on this dimension is because customers understand that you’re basically just inhibiting access to code that is already there and hence being draconian. Another reason to be cautious with this model is that as usage of the product deepens over time, paid features will tend to get pulled into lower-priced tiers — which means you need to fill in new features/prices with every release or update. As easy as it is to communicate general-use features in pricing tiers, there’s a level of distaste with this approach for many customers.

Administration/IT

One of the most common approaches to differentiating a SaaS product designed for business is to separate out the IT-focused features as a pricing attribute. These could be features for security, audit, identity integration, domain names, sharing, control, management, etc. Businesses understand what it is like to both value and pay for these features.

Commonly this approach is used to rectify a product that has become viral within an enterprise, so be careful about how you approach an enterprise with pricing here. Otherwise you might come across as an arsonist-firefighter who is offering to contain the very situation you knowingly created.

Scale in consumption

Another broadly used SaaS pricing attribute is storage consumption (even for products for which storage is not a primary attribute): It’s easy to measure, easy to articulate, and is relatively expensive. The benefit of using storage is that people “get it” to some degree. It also gets cheaper faster than people can consume it (and in most scenarios customers need to be doing something fairly extreme to consume vast amounts of storage). At the same time, the platform companies have been steadily increasing free storage or ultra-low priced storage as a base, no-frills service so simply using storage as a one-dimensional offering might not work. With a new SaaS product, be sure to consider ways to avoid basing costs on storage given challenges.

One novel approach seen recently is using third-party storage and letting the customer establish a paying relationship such that storage is not part of the pricing of your product, since that way you do not serve as a pure pass-through for a visibly priced third-party element of your product. There are many novel attributes in modern software that can be used as consumption variables; one relatively new one is to use depth consumption of APIs/calls as a price tiering structure. (Box, where I’m an advisor, recently announced pricing for Box APIs as an example.) Developer-oriented products work especially well for consumption pricing because developers understand the product architecture and what can drive costs, even if those costs are variable with usage.

Scale in consumers

SaaS products used by small teams, cross-organizations, or that just scale with more members collaborating/sharing/using are almost always priced by number of unique users (and subsequent integration with organization-based directories). Pricing this variable is straightforward and over time you will see distribution of engagement and resource usage that will further let you refine the discrete price points.

Because most products priced this way also want to encourage more users/usage, carefully consider where you put the first step or two. But large-scale customers like this approach because it allows for predictable pricing on a metric they understand: number of employees/users. In general, you can think of this as per-seat pricing but can also apply to device end-points, servers/CPUs, VMs, etc.

Segmenting your customers

Every product is used by different customer segments — whether measured by size of organization, industry segment, geography, or type of individual within an organization. Common pricing tier labels here include “government”, “non-profit”, “academic”, “healthcare”, “small business”, and so on.

As a product matures, you will almost certainly either label or expand your pricing tiers to account for this. Before you jump into this level of differentiation, however, you want to gain more data on usage — are you seeing customers across some set of segments, and are they using the product differently? More importantly, do you see a path to develop differentiation that allows you to target and sustain these segments (or are you just optimizing revenue along these lines)? Some products are designed only for specific segments like education, which allows you to further refine within them: e.g., public, private, post-secondary, etc.

But one customer segment that is almost always special is the engaged technical user. These folks can push a product through an organization when required, or develop custom solutions on your platform that either deliver or enhance the value of your work.

Developers are key in this regard. For any platform-oriented product, it is worth considering how you offer developers the ability to experiment with and use the full product in a development environment at a very low price. One way to accomplish this is to separate out usage-as-development versus usage-as-production, and price accordingly.

* * *

As a new offering with any established competitors, pricing will be the easiest point of attack. And if you are a disruptive product, you want to have the deepest possible understanding of the value you are bringing to the table so you can maximize the initial pricing model. So the most important suggestion for pricing I have here is to wait until the last possible moment to price and announce.

Even for enterprise products, things like round-numbers, 9′s, and discounts all matter. Do keep in mind that discounting will be substantial in enterprise products with direct sales and 50% or more off “list” price is not uncommon (and often required). That’s not an excuse to bloat the price, but it is important for purchasing managers and for empowering your salesforce that you enable a level of customization — and know what variables you are using to do so.

Some say that you can never change or raise your prices once you’re out of the gate. Always keep in mind that once you have customers, price changes or product composition relative to price are never viewed as positive changes, even if you think for some customers you are lowering the price. And when you do change your prices, always offer existing customers time to adapt and grandfather them in (at least). Finally, remember to engineer a product framework that can support pricing flexibility.

Create the model, use the model, but don’t let the model do your thinking. Price carefully!

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

This post originally appeared on TechCrunch.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 16, 2014 at 11:00 am

Everyone starts with simplicity, no-one ends there and that’s OK

simplicityDesigning a user experience for many millions of people is a unique job that a relatively small number of people practice. The responsibility of such an undertaking is immense, stressful, and one that can be all-consuming. Cold sweats, sick to your stomach, and a constant feeling of messing up are the norm for those that take on these challenges.

But someone has to do it!

This week brought quite a few big design changes that have folks talking including twitter adding mute, gmail testing out a major revamp, and iOS 8 bringing “Surface split-screen to iPad”.

Everyone starts with simplicity, then what?

At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal. Products are declared simple, minimal, and tailored to specific uses. Almost no one argues against these attributes and when marketing goes to position a tech product, invariably these attributes bubble up to the top of the favorable list. That’s because of the inherent and expected complexity of tech products as a starting point.

At introduction almost every successful product champions simplicity as a design and execution goal.

But where to go next? Tech products that are simple can start off well, but three things exist immediately after launch.

  1. A customer need to address feedback and “fix” things that might be simple but are not quite there yet.
  2. A product need to remain competitive with the products that follow your introduction touting the same simplicity but also do a few more things (reading the reviews of your product will always demonstrate examples of wish lists)
  3. A business need to develop new products that can enhance revenue, margins, or maintain price points in the face of commoditization.

Tech products, particularly software products, are unique in that there is an almost natural tendency to organically add or to absorb features from competitive or adjacent products. Unlike physical hardware products that have COGS and BOM challenges, the incremental cost of software is simply limited to R&D (and operational costs for SaaS). That means when faced with the above existential properties, tech products will get new features pretty rapidly.

These new features will do constant battle with the simplicity of the initial release. Some argue that this is just bloat and invariably ruins products. Certainly from a design perspective this is a massive challenge. It takes enormous discipline. On the other hand, there are very few examples of software-based products that remain static. To remain static in features is to open yourself up to commoditization or disruption—a static target is an easy target.

Example: Palm Pilot

The introduction of the Palm Pilot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PalmPilot) is a fascinating historic example of simplicity leading to isolation and expiration of a product. The designers of the product did an amazing job building an amazing product. All day battery life, simplicity, specific and purpose-built as the first truly modern and truly mobile productivity tool used by the masses.

I remember in 1998 the Palm Pilot was standard issue for all new MBA students when I taught. Shortly after that time, I recall a panel discussion with one of the original designers of the product. At the time the pitch was overarching simplicity and ease of use. Everyone agreed. Then there was an audience question that changed the dynamic.

Most leading edge folks at this time were carrying Motorola flip phones along with the calendar/notes/contacts in their Palm Pilot. The problem was every time they wanted to make a call, it was a multi-step process that involved looking up a number on the Palm Pilot and juggling the two devices while typing into the phone. While this was vastly easier than going back to your desktop or attempting to pull an 8lb laptop out of your bag, it was a usability disaster.

The question was simply—when could I have all the Palm Pilot functionality on my phone? Lots of words about how you could sync (with a cable, not the cloud that didn’t yet exist), but a hardcore answer about how adding a fifth function to the Palm, a phone, would overload the functionality and make the product too complex and unusable. So the phone would never converge with things like your contacts and calendar.

Honest, that was the answer.

The problem was I was sitting there with my pre-production blackberry merrily connecting in real-time to my calendar, contacts, and email on my Exchange server. It was incredibly clear that the need of a non-converged device with a static copy of some of the important mobile tasks was no longer useful.

A pattern for how things evolve in practice

This challenge in software product design happens time and time again. It is the very nature of disruption. The new product does some things brilliantly well and simply, but is “missing” features people value from an existing product or an adjacent product.

Designers face the choice of adding new capabilities and potentially challenging the beauty of the initial release or facing competition and disruption from new competitors without that same strongly held belief. Marketing, channel, business and pricing can defend against these for a while but ultimately the ease and costs of just adding features in software will win.

The tension between user interface design and the realities and capabilities of software leads to a fairly predictable pattern for how tech/software products evolve. We can think of this pattern as evolution in five stages:

  • Introduce
  • Optimize
  • Deliberate
  • Succumb
  • Mature or Renew

Introduce. First you introduce a new product. In your view it is a thing of beauty. Whether you spent 3 years or 3 months, you are convinced it has exactly the right features done exactly the right way, though you know there are ton of things on your “to do” list. Even if you are practicing lean methodologies you are pretty sure you got it right in your heart even though there is a lot of learning to follow. Your design embodies simplicity in design and messaging. Once your product starts to get used and you have the luxury of people relying on your work you begin to see the holes and maybe even misfires in your experience design. Optimize. You have a lot of work to do to reconcile your “to do” list with what actual people using your product. It turns out that what you thought the product was missing is pretty different than what everyone else thought the product was missing. You shrug this off and take the feedback seriously because you have real-world people using your product. Quite often the innovations introduced at this stage are formalizations for how people were using your product. Add-ins, customizations, or just conventions that enhanced usage become the sorts of things you formalize in the product. You very quickly iterate and get to a much more robust, reliable, stable, and usable version of what you had originally envisioned. This becomes the foundation of your product.

Deliberate. Evolving your product at this stage is very fun. While you believe you have a product that embodies your vision, with usage you begin to see broader usage and scenarios as part of your product. There might be third parties that do similar things as you but with a slightly different or much improved take on a specific mechanism you have in your product. Because you have become a leader with your product in “the way” things are done, when you decide to introduce an innovation it comes as a deliberate and thoughtful extension of your experience. Rarely do you see pushback from a broad base of customers when something new is introduced at this stage in your product’s evolution. In fact you often are seen as taking the product to a new level and providing a broader context in which your whole category or class of products should evolve. You are basking in the glow of innovating in the user experience of your space—you have come to define the category and now you’re defining the category to include new elements of user-experience.

Succumb. The feedback your product is receiving is growing, both positive and negative. As your product is used more and more, the usage scenarios and skill-levels of your customers change dramatically. Your product is used in ways you could never imagine and customers are asking for your product to do things you would never have imagined they would ask. If your product becomes essential for some scenario, then people will ask for your product to take on attributes and features of other familiar products (if you share photos, then you’re likely to be asked for photo editing for example; if you communicate, then before long you will be asked for rules and filters; if you type then you will be asked for more and more formatting, spelling, and entry features). If during the previous stage you really believed you had achieved a level of almost Bauhaus minimalism about your product, this is the stage when you feel a relentless pressure to add more. You’re hearing from customers, pundits, press and more about the must-haves and must-dos. This is by far the most stressful time in product development—you can’t just step back and not change things, but you constantly feel like changes are all part of a slippery slope. You constantly find yourself struggling between the minimalist view of the product you have been perfecting and the need from different types of customers for seemingly contradictory types of features. It is why at this stage as a designer you feel like you are succumbing to feedback and introducing features that you know some people will value and others will see the other way or maybe just not even notice—you feel like you’re bloating your simple product. These are the hardest decisions to make and are the price of success. If you try to hang on to simplicity, you will see competitors pass you by or you’ll see engagement stagnate.

Mature or Renew. The natural evolution of most every product involves a fairly long period of incorporating features in the previous stage—you add some new things, incrementally change some existing things, and in general are working to find a path through the maze of contradictory feedback and complex market needs. Over time your product will develop a different personality and unique set of assets, but is going to be far from that original version. While you might have hundreds of millions of customers, at some point the experience of your product is such that the market collectively demands an overhaul. The challenge of course is that the collective market is very different than any one individual or an organization (for enterprise products). The latter two, unlike the aggregate view of the market, do not necessarily embrace change. This point in the evolution of your product is where you face disruption—the telltale signs of reduced engagement, alternative tools and experiences, or just a lack of energy in your ecosystem are signs that your product is overdue for improvements, new features and more. Software affords you the chance to reimagine your product and presents you with the opportunity at this time. Of course with hundreds of millions of customers, a very large number in absolute will not want any change at all. That’s why this stage of evolution is a choice—you can incrementally mature your product design or you can choose to renew your product design. These two are really that very rare of “either-or” choices. As a product designer, you will be faced with a big set of decisions when you have to design what comes next for a mature product. Be careful what you wish for you as your design might be so successful that one day you face the prospect of redesigning it in the context of a significant customer base.

Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road.

Products reaching a mature stage face a fork in the road—one where you can renew or watch your product slowly shrink in relevance. This might seem dramatic, but the velocity of change in the technology world combined with the ease of switching shows that one day what might seem like “the way things are done” will risk becoming “the way things used to be” much sooner than expected.

Disruption and technology transitions are part of the context of designing products and experiences.

From search home pages, to photo editors, word processors, operating systems, music players, and more these stages are all part of the evolution of a user experience. The beauty of software interface is that unlike the physical world you are given the chance to move things around, change, and improve the product for little to no manufacturing cost, but at each stage you have to work through the cost of change to customers.

No other product in history has had the ability to be used by so many yet be so flexible in how it is used.

Simplicity in design is what we all strive for and often how we begin a product lifecycle. With success, maintaining simplicity over time while also remaining competitive is where design and product management are really challenged.

The “soft” of software makes this challenge even more acute and the pressures to add or change a product even more difficult to resist.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 13, 2014 at 11:00 am

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Designing for BYO, a product manager view

imageMany companies I work with are creating tools to enhance workplace or personal productivity depends on the “bring your own” or BYO movement to get their product bootstrapped or to just get in the door. Once in the door, the product design challenges of BYO begin.

After those first customers they count on broader, viral, usage within a company to drive revenue growth. While they likely built your product with the notion that “customer equals purchaser” once this changes to “business equals purchaser”, you are going to get a whole different level of feedback.

My guess is most every app and service is both excited and terrified to get to the moment when there is a choice between cozying up to IT and risking alienating your newly minted enthusiasts. It is, by all accounts, a choice. Most I talk to feel like they will navigate this by focusing on customers first and hope to overwhelm the negatives often associated with IT.

Walk that fine line to enable your product to be at some state of détente with IT.

Get over it. Not entirely of course, but there’s some subtly at play. At some point you are going to face a fork in the road; navigate enterprise management or face existential challenges. You can choose to be managed without your cooperation or worse blocked and literally unable to access important assets that your product requires. Alternatively, you might also choose to walk that fine line to enable your product to be at some state of détente with IT.

I know that sounds awful and while I am sure there are some exceptions (in both organizations and products), this is by far the most normal path. It doesn’t have to be a sell-out, but when done well you can bet that you’re going to be in great position to advance the state of the art and contribute positively to enterprise infrastructure.

In fact, as I was typing this post there was this thoughtful article on putting customers first in business apps.

The essence of BYO is that one can easily acquire and begin to use a device, product or service without IT involvement of any kind. You might need to know the server name for email or maybe how to export data from a line of business system, but otherwise the device or app can tap into the necessary resources without first going through IT and/or purchasing. Even better, these tools likely make it very easy to share information with coworkers or collaborators at other organizations. All folks need is a free email account as a gateway to sharing.

Of course all this ease of use has at least two main IT downsides.

First and foremost is security of the network overall. Devices on a network, running code of unknown origin, tapping into servers is a big risk. What can be transmitted by those devices and apps concerns IT. Inbound PDF attachments or simple USB sticks seemed harmless enough at first until they became a massive vectors.

Second, the data and servers being accessed contain information that you need to use but do not own. These are corporate assets and managing and tracking those is a fiduciary responsibility for IT and in some cases such as HIPPA or SEC regulations the penalties for messing up are severe. That simple case of putting something like logmein or internet messaging can potentially become a significant liability.

My own personal experience “helps” me to see this pattern. Working on Microsoft Office in the early days, we were very clearly a “bottom up adoption” product. People were going to stores and buying the product with their own money and creating amazing looking documents they would bring into work (often on PCs bought with personal funds at those same stores). Pretty soon groups of people were using corporate expense accounts to acquire “5 packs” of Office. Then over time, Microsoft grew an enterprise sales force that could offer large deals.

That’s the sales side, but on the product side the management and deployment of the product (deployment being decidedly old school now) became unwieldy. As a result, the late 1990’s saw a movement to reduce so called “TCO” or total cost of ownership. TCO mandated a vast number of controls across the entire platform and from that grew a whole generation of features from the registry, to logon scripts, to the, now, dreaded “corporate desktop”. TCO reached an epic volume as it described owning a $1500 PC as a $20,000 per year expense to companies.

While I was dragged kicking and screaming to deliver features that I felt could be used to make the product worse, the reality was at the time this is also what grew the business.  The tradeoffs, debates, and design choices were all very real.

In a startup, these choices are much more existential than they were for us back then. Given the hurdles to overcome to become a widely used tool, there’s a good chance you might want to be more proactive about how your product fits with BYO.

As a product manager facing this decision point, you have this intense belief that IT wants to make your product worse, harder to use, and to basically ruin your good work. The fact that so few built-for-IT products have the design sense, usability, or approachability of apps and services focused on consumers only reinforces this.

While there are dozens of potential traps and pitfalls that can result in a product falling out of favor, it is a good idea to consider a few important design choices you can make now that will enable your consumer and BYO product to be viewed through a positive light. It is important that these design choices be considered product assets rather than object handlers.

Ultimately, if you design a product to be used in business where you can charge more it should be better, not worse, than a product used in the consumer space. It used to be that the business versions of products charged more so they could do less and be harder to use and acquire. The SaaS and App models invert this. Phil Libin, founder of Evernote, says it best when he says “business class means superior and we challenge ourselves to make our product better when you upgrade to the business version”.

Business class means superior and we challenge ourselves to make our product better when you upgrade to the business version. — Phil Libin, Evernote

The following are five product areas to consider when it comes to making a product business ready:

  • Identity and authentication. The first thing a business needs from a product is that employees should sign into the product using the business-owned credentials (such as Active Directory). This allows IT to send a clear message to the individual that they are operating in a business context. This needs to include authentication mechanisms used at the organization and enforce associated password policy and security. At the same time, you owe it to your own ease of use that stand-alone credentials can be used, especially for collaboration. How you manage the bridge and the commingling of credentials depends on the flow of assets through your product.
  • Network usage. IT organizations guard their network across several dimensions. Platform providers make it possible to use VPN (secured with enterprise credentials) or other access methods for WiFi. Your product should use well-known/documented ports and be clear with IT about what travels over the wire and in what volumes. Techniques like polling, using obscure ports, and more will only hinder your product usage.
  • Changes related to re-orgs. In an organization of any size employees quit, vendors are fired, or staffing on a project just changes. If your product is used across a group of people then IT will want to be there to assist in supporting these changes within your product. How can content remaining on devices be recalled or how can a person lose permissions to content are important design choices you can make in building a product that it BYO friendly.
  • Content “ownership”. If your product creates or consumes content then your product owes it to IT to participate in the content management responsibility of the organization. At one extreme, the clipboard exists on IT apps and in every other app so you can dodge this question by saying it isn’t your exclusive responsibility. On the other hand, by having mechanisms for IT to have some telemetry and actions on content then you invite your product to be desired by IT, not just challenged. More than any other area this is where many potential solutions exist and many possible ways to make the product worse or upgrade to business class.
  • Features. Products are more than editors and tools for sharing, so there are going to be unique features in your product. Some of those unique features will intersect in ways that might run counter to a business policy. Sometimes this could be simple such as an ability to generate email notifications which might be frowned upon. Other times it might be complex as a feature runs directly afoul of regulatory compliance. At some level there are going to be features you give IT permission to enable/disable. No area is more challenging of course and thinking hard about the design tradeoffs when a feature might not be there is important. A feature like password protection might be great for consumers but becomes a huge problem for IT when personnel change. Alternatively, you might have a feature that becomes a “must use” and if that’s the case you want to consider how something you might have thought of as optional becomes permanent. For example, you might optionally support a confirmation email when adding new people to a project and IT might require that email be sent to produce a record of access changes.

There are many other avenues to consider. I think it is possible to make a product better when enabled for business even if you start from the very solid business and design foundation of customer first.

The modern mechanisms for administering IT control are vastly superior to the PC era mechanisms. The idea of running arbitrary code, tweaking every aspect of the UI, or installing add-ins that alter base functionality of a product are long gone. These approaches showed how great products can be made unfamiliar, hard to use, and less robust even with the best intentions Worse, the mechanisms developed to enable these approaches proved to be vectors for security problems, performance challenges, and in general sources of unpredictability and unreliability.

Today’s devices support state-based management, app stores, and security contexts that greatly improve the ability to deliver upgraded business features. To many, these tools are not yet enough. The platform vendors are carefully balancing the approaches they introduce with the known downsides by the old approaches.

There’s a disruption in the way devices, apps, and information are managed, but that does not necessarily mean an elimination.

–Steven Sinofsky

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 1, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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Shipping is a Feature: Some Guiding Principles for People That Build Things

I love questions about advice because they really force one to think carefully about what to say. My former colleague (and fellow Cornellian), Jackie Bavaro now at Asana, who recently co-authored a thoughtful book on the ins and outs of securing a role in product management, asked the following question on Quora:

Untitled

In the back of my head I always have that product manager view of accountability and so rather than “advise” I much prefer to have a dialog in context and make sure accountability stays with the person asking. It is difficult enough to be a manager and avoid the constant pull of “telling people what to do” and certainly on big topics one really has to be careful. At the same time, spouting cliche’s like “what do you think” or “it depends” can frustrate folks. This in itself is a valuable PM lesson.

I’ve been really lucky (literally) to work with many amazing folks and so many routine interactions yield empowering and powerful insights that one can bring forward. I’ve used blogging over many years to share those and many are also republished in our book on strategy and collaboration.

In thinking about the question and some of the recent design-oriented discussions, here are five takeaways that have always guided me. They didn’t originate with me, except in the sense that I discovered their value while making some mistake.

For these five bits of advice, I chose to focus on what I think is the most challenging aspect of being a PM, which is achieving clarity and maintaining a point of view for a product when all forces work against this very thing. What customers value most in a product is that “it just work” or “does what it is supposed to do,” and yet at every step in a product, the dynamics of design work to make this the most difficult to achieve. For those that have not built products, understanding the context and dynamics of decision making while building something is a bit abstract.

Shipping is a feature. Every PM knows this but it is also the hardest thing to get right. As a PM you throw around things like “the enemy of the good is the perfect” or, well, “shipping is a feature” all the time, yet we all have a hard time getting a product out the door. There’s always more to do to get it right. The way this was taught to me was so old it involved software being shipped in a box on floppies, but the visual has stuck with me. When you ship a product in a box on the back of the box are screen shots and marquee features. What does not come on the box are lists of all the features you thought of doing or different executions you considered. It is that simple. Once you release the product you begin a new adventure building then next iteration. It is almost always the case that what you were thinking before you had customers will change in some ways in the version that comes next. So ship. Learn. Gather data. Iterate. Whether you spend three years or three months developing a product this motion is the same.

You get paid to decide. Some people love making decisions on their own. Other people need socialization and iteration to make a choice. Either way can work (or not) as a product manager, but to be great you really do have to decide. Deciding anything important or meaningful at all means some people will disagree. Some might really disagree a huge amount. The bottom line is a decision has to be made. A decision means to not do something, and to achieve clarity in your design. The classic way this used to come up (and still does) is the inevitable “make it an option”. You can’t decide should a new mouse wheel scroll or zoom? Should there be conversation view or inbox view? Should you AutoCorrect or not? Go ahead and add it to Preferences or Options. But really the only correct path is to decide to have the feature or not. Putting in an option to enable it means it doesn’t exist. Putting in an option to disable means you are forever supporting two (then four, then eight) ways of doing something. Over time (or right away) your product has a muddled point of view, and then worse, people come to expect that everything new can also be turned off, changed, or otherwise ignored. While you can always make mistakes and/or change something later, you have to live with combinatorics or a combinatoric mindset forever. This is the really hard stuff about being a PM but the most critical thing, you bring a point of view to a product—if a product were a person you would want that person to have a clear, focused world-view.

Can’t agree to disagree. Anything that requires more than one person to do (and by definition as a PM you are working with Engineering/Dev so that means what you do) will reach a point where you have to do something and not everyone will agree. On a well-run team there are very rarely that many decisions that span many people all of whom have a voice (if you do, then fix that problem first). When you do reach a point where you just don’t agree, first, contemplate the first lesson and realize you have to ship. Second, see the previous lesson and realize you do have to decide. That leaves you deciding something that some people (or one person) won’t like. What you don’t want to do is end that meeting over coffee with the infamous “we have to ship and I think we should do X, so let’s just move on and agree to disagree”. Endings like that are never good. The “told you so moment” is just out there waiting to appear. The potential for passive-aggressive org dynamics is all too real. Ultimately, this is just a yucky place to be. So if you’re on the “winning” side of such a dialog then you have to bring people along every day for a while. You can’t remind people who was right, or that it is your decision and so on. If you’re on the “losing” side you need to support the team. You can’t remind people when little things go wrong (which they will) that you were right. Once a choice is made, the next step is all about the greater good. Nothing is harder for technologists than this because as technologists we believe there is a “right” answer and folks that don’t agree are simply “wrong”. Context is everything and remember you have to ship–as a team.

Splitting the baby is, well, splitting the baby. Even with all those lessons, time and time again I’ve faced situations where there is a stalemate on the team and the suggestion is made for a middle-of-the-road choice. A feature will appear sometimes. Performance won’t be terrible, but it won’t be great. Customers can do 90% of something, but not everything. Yet it would be possible to decide to have the feature, have great performance, or deliver 100%—it is just that the team dynamic is placing a value on finding a middle road. The biblical narrative of splitting the baby often comes into play here, because in practice if you do arrive at such a comprise what you’ve in effect done is reached a state where in fact you have made no one happy in the room and no one happy down the road. Of course, compromise is a critical part of product design for many reasons. The bigger the team, the more varied customers, the increased divergence of customer needs all lead to a stronger need to find middle paths for complex choices. There is magic when you can do this without just muddling the product. But there is risk that if your design language turns into splitting the baby that the output is exactly what you don’t want to achieve.

10% better can be 100% different. The hardest choices a PM can make are not the new choices for a product—a clean slate is challenging, but that is the truly fun part of design for many. It is not easy, but it is fun. The real challenge comes when deciding what to do next time around (in three weeks, three months or more). The first thing you do is remember all those things you could not get done or had to decide sub-optimally. So you think you’ll go back and “polish” off the work. But remember, now you have customers and they are using the product. They might not see what wasn’t done. They might actually like what you ended up doing. Your temptation to tweak things to “finish” them might come across as better in an incremental sense, but will it be that much better for existing customers? Will it be so much better for new customers that it is worth the risk of touching that code again? The big question for you is whether you can really measure how much better something is—is it more efficient, faster, deeper, etc.? There are many cases, particularly in user-experience flow and design, where incremental improvement simply amounts to speed bumps in using a new release and the downside masks the upside. Sometimes when you improve something 10% what you really do is make it 100% different.

Context is everything in decision making as a PM . The skills and experience of the team matter. The realities of where the business is at a given time or the ability to execute on a proposal are all factors that weigh heavily. Hindsight is 20/20 or better in the world of PM, and we all know there are many standing by to offer perspective, advice, or even criticism of the choices a product makes.

If you don’t make those choices in a timely manner then there won’t be much to talk about. Sometimes the most difficult thing to do is keep moving forward. That’s why some of the most valuable advice I’ve received relate to the very challenges of making tough product calls.

 

–Steven Sinofsky @stevesi

This post originally appeared on a16z.com.

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 17, 2014 at 8:30 am

Look at me! More thoughts on notifications

36458Hunter Walk shared some thoughts on notifications and the challenges he and (certainly through twitter) many people see. Many of the companies I’ve met with see design challenges in how much and when to offer up notifications. There’s a long history of trying different approaches and modalities to notifications and so it seems worth some additional perspective for those familiar with what we see today on modern mobile platforms.

Notifications are one of those features where everyone has an opinion, and rightfully so. The feature is so visible and for just about everyone seems so close to being helpful but yet always off by just a little. There’s a general UX principle that is worth considering, which is anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right (correct, useful, helpful) for him/her 100% of the time. If not, chances are your customer will recall the negatives of the feature far more than the positives. This applies to notifications, autocorrect, form completion, and more. If you find yourself putting a lot of design energy into how your customer can undo or dismiss your best guess at what was intended, then you’re probably being too aggressive.

Anytime you push some feature on your customer you really want it to be right for him/her 100% of the time.

In some ways, today’s Notification Centers are the extreme case of “we’re collectively going to be wrong so often that we’re just going to put stuff in one place” or “there’s just so much we app developers have to tell you that the platforms are squeezing it all into one place to avoid cluttering up the platform itself”.

It is as if it isn’t enough we have to manage all of our apps, bookmarks, and preferences, we now have to manage all the ways apps tell us stuff we might want to know. Hunter’s raised the complaint (to a chorus of agreement) that after a two weeks, you have to go in and turn off notifications on a new app. Of course this improves battery life, reduces chatter, and then as some noted causes you to start to ignore the app.

What’s an app developer to do?

What to do?

In the PC era a lot of effort went into honing the design of verbs and interaction. It took a decade to develop the right approaches to menus, toolbars, status bars, panes, and more. That’s because many apps were essentially a large set of verbs this was the big design challenge. The rough equivalent to this design challenge is the role of notifications in mobile. That’s because in a mobile world many apps exist to be essentially a stream of information.

Notifications suffer a clear tension between platform pm and the app pm.

Platform pm wants to contain apps to the app experience, extending the walled-garden such that apps don’t interfere with other apps. By definition a notification is a way for one app to interfere with other apps. Platform pm sees notifications as necessary far less frequently than app pm might. This leads to a set of APIs that offer a clear, albeit limited, view of what a notification is and what it can do. This seems reasonable and we all want the platform folks maintaining a global view of consistency in approach and control.

App pm sees the world through the lens of their app. The assumption is that someone downloading and using an app has made a choice to count on that app for the purpose it was designed, and so whether it is an airline app alerting you to a flight (or a potential discount on a future flight), a bank with a balance alert (or advertising a new bank feature), or a communication tool letting you know of some inbound message (or alerting you that a friend is now on line) the app pm sees any of these as worthwhile reasons to interfere with your flow or context. On all platforms, apps often design their own type of notifications that get used while you are using the app (for in app purchase or feature advertising) because the platform is not rich enough. All this seems legitimate, and certainly at the time of initial designs.

Over time the initial designs from both parties tend to lead to an expansion in the ability to interrupt you. Each subsequent release of a platform almost always adds more capabilities to enhance and customize notifications in an effort to offer more while also trying to keep the noise in the system manageable. Each app adds more and more notifications in an effort to more deeply engage with customers and likely to encourage customers to use more surface area of the app.

Many who use iOS 7 have spent quite a bit of time mired notification customization. Here is an overview of the iOS 7 features, both the notifications and notification center, worth a look if you’re on Android or not sure of the impressive depth that Apple designed for notification. Android is probably not quite at the same level of consistency and control, though as you might expect there are several apps that can help you customize notifications of other apps.

Design Challenge

At the extreme we end up with two core design challenges.

Notification spam. This one is easy. Too many apps just think too much of what is going on is important to you. Like too much of any design the burden falls to app product managers to just be more thoughtful. Like so many elements of any platform, when there is a view that making money depends on getting folks to use more of a product or spend more time in a product, the platform starts to look a bit like “surface area to be exploited”. Like the old Start Menu and desktop in Windows, the more places an app can “infuse” itself and invade your space the better. On Android we see this in the share item menu as another bit of surface area to be gamed or exploited.

Notification action. The most common issue with notification is that your flow is interrupted and then you seem to be pulled into a state of distraction until you deal with the inbound notice. We each have our own human based algorithms for how to cope. We always jump on SMS. We (almost) always ignore a ringing phone. We wish we could find a way for some app or another to stop bugging us so we uninstall it.

On iOS there is very little you can do to a notification other than dismiss it or just jump directly to the app or place in the app that generated the notification. Modal or must-act notifications are generally discouraged. The resulting notification center then turns into a list to read that spans a bunch of apps and for some ends up to be a list of stuff you’ve already seen popup or in context or just a reminder to get to the app.

On Android, the design takes a different approach which is to enable notifications that can take actions. This is where the elegance of notifications is really stretched, but in a way that many find appealing. For example, when you receive a new mail message the gmail notification lets you archive it based on reading the initial content or various SMS clients offer you the ability to reply.

On Windows Phone, one has the additional option of pivoting notifications by person on your home screen so you can glance and see that there is activity by person. This has a natural appeal when there are a small set of folks you care deeply about but as a general purpose mechanism it might not scale particularly well.

The core challenge with offering verbs with notifications is almost “classic” in that one can never off the right set of verbs because eventually the design turns into attempting to implement the a substantial number of features of the app in the notification. Mail is a great challenge: delete, file, reply, flag, etc. all become possible verbs. Each usage pattern in aggregate leads to the whole mail experience. The more users you have the larger the group of customers that don’t like the subset of verbs you picked.

Ultimately taking action based on a notification turns into a bit of a frustration in that the notification centers essentially offer a new way to launch all your apps. What was a nice feature turns into a level of indirection almost all the time.

Opportunity

Therein is the opportunity. In a world where many people are almost constantly glancing at their phones and wanting to know more about what is going on in their digital lives and a world where almost every app represents an endless stream of information along with in-app notifications, it seems that notifications need a different level of semantics.

For example, with just a few friends Facebook always has something new to see so why notify you of the obvious. For many, Twitter is essentially a notification engine. Mail certainly is a constant stream, arguably of decreasing importance. In other words, it isn’t even clear what makes sense to notify you about when the natural behavior is to periodically launch apps to see what’s new within the app context and apps are generating new information all the time.

Similarly, if most everyone knows that when you are talking to another human you both have to turn your phones upside down to avoid being distracted (or sharing private information), then there’s a good chance we’ve collectively missed the mark notifications. The iOS “do not disturb” is an awesome feature but yet it seems to undo all the work in both the notification center and in the apps.

My view is that a feature that requires us to customize it before it becomes useful or less annoying is defaulted the wrong way. Of course this is literally impossible with a product used by more than a few people, since any design at all will have both critics and shortcomings. However, it is possible to default to “out of the way” and then provide a mechanism for people to decide what they might want to be notified about once a usage pattern is established.

For example, I might assert that for an app like mail, sms, Facebook, or Twitter the simple iOS badge is enough. We are all in and out of these apps enough during the day that a specific notification is redundant with the in-app notifications already there.

Each app can almost certainly step back and either know a priori or offer a mechanism that puts people in control of their experience with notifications. It is almost certainly the case that if we’re bouncing in and out of apps all the time but really do want to know if SMS comes from a loved one amongst the 100’s of SMS many get each day, that is likely the way to design a feature.

It is easy to imagine using more context (loved the twitter suggestion to not notify while driving/moving fast). It is easy to imagine more machine learning applied to notifications. But I think we can start from a fresh perspective that the mechanisms provided are just being over-used to begin with when we look at modern usage patterns.

–Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

February 15, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Posted in posts

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A product management view of CES 2014

CESI love the Consumer Electronics Show. Maybe I’m numb from decades of attending it. Maybe I’m just too much of a fan of watching stuff get made. Maybe I just like long lines and the potential for airborne illness. Really what I love is the technology industry and that every year we get together and demo new products, share works in progress, and take chances on offering products people don’t yet (or ever) know they want. CES 2014 was an exceptionally unique year and one that I think will be remembered as the start of a new era, much how the 1970 show changed TV with the introduction of the VCR or the 1981 show changed music with the CD player.

CES 2014 was an exceptionally unique year and one that I think will be remembered as the start of a new era.

But wait, you ask “What product was launched at CES 2014?” The answer is “None”. Instead, this is a year in which every product is about software, and every product assumed that the computer involved would be based on modern mobile platforms, and most everything connected to a cloud service. As an industry we’re not there yet, as we will talk about below, some offerings still cling to previous models of accessing computing and we’re likely to see much changing of the guard as breakthrough products emerge.

The ubiquity of the modern mobile platform, smartphones and tablets, might seem obvious to all of us in computing proper, but it took the better part of a decade for it to go from a section of the show to a big presence to woven into the fabric of every exhibitor. Likewise, software has gone from “content” to “console games” to “pc applications that get thrown in with a device” to the raison d’être or differentiation of consumer electronics.

So put aside the lines, the endless sameness of non-differentiated products, the puzzling keynotes, or even the absence of Apple and Google, and consider the over 3200 companies of all sizes showing off products of all kinds. For me, I think back to when I was a kid and the excitement around what was next came at the yearly Auto Show or reading about the historical World’s Fair Expos. It is hard to avoid concluding that CES is our era’s expression of the future—transportation, healthcare, communication, entertainment, and more are represented by the innovation on display at CES.

It is hard to avoid concluding that CES is our era’s expression of the future—transportation, healthcare, communication, entertainment, and more are represented by the innovation on display at CES.

Me, I’m just excited to get to go to the show and systematically walk up and down every aisle exploring what is there to see. My one set of eyes and one post can’t compete with the likes of the professional tech press that push out hundreds of posts during the week or with the amazingly thorough coverage of “best of” done by many.

Instead, I offer these observations or themes from a product development perspective—what would I be looking at as a product manager or engineer. As I’ve said in this blog many times, learning comes from observing and sharing. Product plans come from many points of view and sources coming together in the context of a company. I cover a lot, but there is more. It was a great show for learning and thinking about the next phase of our industry.

This report looks at themes covering embedded smarts, healthcare devices, communication wearables, screens (4K, curved, skinny), less futzing, and overall trends up/down.

First, a bit of humility

One thing required when looking at new products and technologies is humility. Even though many would like to differ, CES is not a shopping mall where you go to find the new big thing to buy or use right away. This is counter-intuitive because a lot of the products at CES are new and for sale. But in practice, they have not been used and many times not even released to reviewers yet. So you want to step back as you read about the products and not look through the lens of “would I buy and use this today” and instead think about the context overall. As part of that I like to remind myself of a few things about what we see:

  • Companies aren’t dumb. A lot of times when a product is first seen something jumps out at you as totally wrong. Keep in mind many of the products are not about the use cases for today, but for use cases yet to be seen. The most classic example is the Walkman— a “tape recorder” that didn’t record. Or more recently, a digital camera that is bigger, heavier, costlier, and worse than a film camera. Sometimes the new use cases aren’t even obvious to the companies yet, and this is even more true today as many “hardware” companies are moving forward rapidly with hardware or the supply chain is making available new components because it can, neither really having software that can implement new use cases.
  • Limitations seen in less than one minute are known by the product people. Every product has issues, limitation, constraints. Walking up to a brand new product and thinking you’re the first person to notice such is usually a mistake. While the person at the booth might know the FAQ, it is a good idea to assume the product folks back at HQ actually know the limitations. I can’t count how many times people commented on the battery life of one of the wearables with screens—as though the people developing them would not like to have a month of battery life or were not aware of the trade-off between weight and battery life.
  • Iteration is baked into the product you are seeing. Even though the product is for sale, it might not be done yet. It will get smaller, faster, cheaper, power efficient, lighter, and more feature rich. It will do so quickly. Many of those plans are in place. Because so much of the hardware is now subject to Moore’s Law, it is already happening and you can just wait—the price of 4K displays will drop rapidly and because of 1080P volume the price is already spectacular compared to what we’ve come to expect based on previous generations. For software, we all know updates and features are part of the plan. There’s no guarantee things will go in the “right” direction for every product but iteration will happen. Because there are many players, keep in mind that iteration by one player becomes learning for another player so there is ample opportunity for changes in leadership. We all know in technology, first mover advantage is not necessarily an advantage. Multi-party, iteration is the reason.
  • Core competency matters. With so many devices doing so many things and so many products incorporating features from other products for differentiation, it is important to focus on the core competency of a product. There’s a good chance a product will try to do too much or for that matter all the products will try to differentiate themselves based on some peripheral features. Don’t lose sight that TVs should have a good picture, fitness bands should measure your fitness well, scales should be fast and easy to read, speakers should sound good and so on.
  • Everything has depth and experts. Every year I get surprised by some product that I never thought of and think how amazing that idea is, and then I see 3 more of them on the show floor. It is easy to forget that inside the CE industry there are many industries. Within those industries are people who spend their careers mastering something that, to the uninitiated, might seem narrow. I saw a modern blood sugar monitor (see below) this year that was totally unique. Then I saw two more. These experts are all feeding off many of the same inputs and so one should expect some degree of convergent innovation. Said another way, in the context of a broad show like CES, something that I think is really cool might not actually be all that innovative to those in the field with some domain knowledge.

Themes

Let’s look at some themes and within them put on our product manager hats and see how what we observed might influence our own choices in products design. I’m going to take the observations from the show floor and project forward a bit as that’s what product management needs to do with the data when there are technology bets to be made, products to design, and specs to write.

Embedded smarts

Intel kicked off the show with a keynote declaring that all devices need to be smart. Walking around the show floor showed that this advice has already been taken to heart. While smart TVs are the most obviously visible (and also a holdover from the past two or so years), we also saw smart cars, smart healthcare devices, smart fitness monitors, smart watches, smart home appliances, smart projectors, and more. Smart was everywhere. Should it be?

Smart can mean anything from a touch-based user interface replacing the existing mechanical UI to taking a formerly mechanical device and embedding an entire OS with app ecosystem into the device.

Moore’s Law is an important contributor to this trend. Previous views of smart devices would have meant connecting the hardware device to a PC, with all of the costs, size, power that this entails. Home automation that used to take a PC now just connects devices with Wi-Fi to a cloud service, for example. A home blood pressure monitor would have stored some number of readings until you connected it with a serial cable to a PC and now it just sends those over Wi-Fi to a cloud service. TVs would have been connected to a PC that presented a full PC experience through an alternate user interface that today can offer this same type of functionality through an entirely embedded solution. Now it is both feasible and economic to include an ARM-based computing platform and either a Linux or Android OS driving the “smarts”.

But is this always right? The product manager view might be that it is time to look at use cases and scenarios and step back. While the hardware side is possible, the software might not be delivering the right experience. The truth is, some devices should be dumb. And that’s ok. The internet of things does not need to recreate the challenges of the internet of PCs. A single general purpose approach used everywhere might not be the best approach compared to tailored devices working with a very rich mobile device and cloud services.

The truth is, some devices should be dumb. And that’s ok.

One reason for this is that there can only be so many app ecosystems. It simply won’t be possible for apps to be delivered reliably and in a feature complete manner across all of the various smart devices. While today it might be possible for a streaming music service to be omnipresent on every possible smart device from a watch to a car to a TV to a refrigerator to a treadmill (and a phone and a tablet), down the road the user experience for that streaming app will have become rich enough that the primary use case will drive the expected experience which won’t be duplicated across devices, whether that is because the devices vary in capabilities, screen sizes, or just human interaction or just because there are too many different platforms.

Two examples help to reinforce this product challenge.

  • Screens / TV. We all want lots of stuff on our big screens. We want streaming video, live broadcast television, music (maybe), and perhaps some web services like messaging. But these are all sophisticated experiences (finding the video, dealing with TV signals/guides/DVR, managing playlists, different apps), and so it means they likely demand (or will demand) a rich interaction model connected to services. Good news! We already have this interaction model on our modern mobile tablets and phones. Why try to duplicate this with the added complexity and variety of TVs? Rather a device like Chromecast or Apple TV shows how you can use the TV simply as a “dumb screen” which becomes far more manageable, the UI is far better, and is a much better overall experience. These solutions, where the screen is dumb and the mobile device serves as the gateway to the dumb screen seem to put the code in the right place and reduce complexity and increase simplicity for the use case. It is worth asking if this Twitter client on a TV will ever match what you can do on your mobile device in your hand while watching the show? That’s not to say there won’t be other use cases integrating apps into TV, but just showing subsets of the mobile apps side by side doesn’t seem right.

  • Autos. From Audi to Volvo we saw smarts added to cars. This was added in the form of a screen, a telemetry platform, and apps. What is different about this compared to TVs is that we don’t want cars to be dumb. We want cars to be smart about being cars (safety, maintenance, better driving and accident avoidance). Like TVs, however, it isn’t clear that we want to put the equivalent of a unique mobile platform in every car brand. Is there any chance the mapping app in a car will be on par with the mapping app in my mobile device? Wouldn’t I rather have the same ability to send my mobile screen to the car screen that I get with Chromecast or Apple TV? Perhaps having a protocol that supports touch in that scenario is very helpful too. In the meantime the smarts of the car can focus on the things the car needs to do, and perhaps even recognize the best way to have a user experience and manage those would be with an app and cloud service? Ultimately, the way cars are made means that the technology choices are out of date by the time the car makes it to market and if you own the car for 5 years then those technology choices are really dated and perhaps the overall resale value of the car declines.

Will this UX really be right today or in 8 years?

The fact that all the screens and cars are making bets on technologies that are just capable of being used helps us all—this is not the time to be cynical but the time to learn. These products are not done yet and we can’t highlight the greatness of the Lean Startup and MVP and then be critical of bringing to market products that might not quite be done—that’s where reviews, experts, and frankly store return policies can help. As a product manager you want to ask yourself about the trajectory and likelihood of success of an approach down the road when the work all comes together. These new products show exciting scenarios but maybe there are better ways to implement them.

Healthcare devices

The advances in sensors have been breathtaking thanks to technologies like MEMS and others. Combining those with the ability to embed and whole OS and connectivity to cloud services in what used to be basic diagnostic equipment is a revolution in healthcare. Here too we saw many new and breakthrough products. As a telemetry nut, obsessive compulsive, and geek these are some of the most exciting products ever. One thing that made this CES seem so new and fresh is that this feels like a renaissance in consumer electronics. Devices you buy at reasonable price points, solve specific problems like an appliance, and just work for a scenario. In most ways, these new devices are starting to deliver now.

Basic body telemetry like weight, blood pressure, composition and more can now be easily measured, tracked over time, and even shared easily with care givers or compared with a circle of friends. Stepping on a scale every morning is quietly making a bar chart, setting alerts, and trending your data. And even better, such devices are learning from past designs and becoming easier to setup and use. No longer do you need a PC, EXE, and USB cable. Instead the device is paired over Bluetooth with a dedicated app and you’re up and running with a great UI in no time. Basic scenarios like maintaining compliance with medication are made easier by smart pill boxes that alert you wirelessly on your mobile device to take medicine. Overkill? Perhaps, but compliance rates are still not where they need to be. And combine this with easy measurement of blood pressure and you can see how putting smart in the right place, cloud services and mobile apps to make things accessible can be such a huge advance.

Three healthcare products that demonstrate this include:

  • Head injury. Much has been written about the rise in head injury in sports and long term risk associated with cumulative concussion, particularly football. Reebok with the Checklight is one of many companies with a product designed to measure cumulative head impact using accelerometers. The packaging is very user friendly as you can see (and it won a best of CES award). The basics of the device are cool—a red light goes off when a certain level of cumulative concussion risk has been reached. Other variants of similar devices have different form factors (helmet integrated, mouth guard) and can even report real time to a mobile app. The telemetry, use case, and execution are all coming together at CES 2014.

  • UV exposure. The JUNE UV detection bracelet by netamo simply measures cumulative sun exposure and integrates with a mobile app, again with a simple UI on the device and a data connection to a mobile app. There’s a lot to like about this for folks who work or play outdoors and want to mitigate the risk of skin disease or damage. The app/service provides advice and a suggested “routine” for your skin based on data.
  • Blood glucose. Those that have been touched by diabetes (perhaps one of the more insidious diseases in the developing world, costing the US an estimated $245B a year in healthcare and related costs) know the complexity and challenges of testing and managing glucose levels. The YoFi Meter, http://www.yofimeter.com/, is a very smart device (see the above discussion). It combines a glucose test strip dispenser/reader, a lancet dispenser, along with a simplified tracking interface on a touch screen and an integrated 3G connection to a cloud data service. This is a device that takes compliance to a new level. At first I might have thought this device is too smart, and then after talking to the designer I learned of many use cases where a companion mobile phone isn’t available or possible (for example, students must be tested by the nurse who doesn’t have time to call up parents with real time data and a phone might not be available in school).

Each of these three devices shows how telemetry and mobile apps/cloud services can dramatically change the basics of healthcare for a scenario.

There are challenges we will all need to deal with however. These challenges are not new to those who already work with data.  Data does not always lead to actionable next steps and sometimes more data leads to more ambiguity. These three devices show how the reality is that science is not yet caught up to being able to present us with all this data.

In the case of concussion and head injury, right now the data is unclear on how much cumulative impact over what period of time is “safe”. So while it can be measured, exactly when and how to act is not clear, particularly for children. It is easy to see how the debate will quickly move to one of acceptable levels. So more studies over a longer period of time will be needed which for this type of measurement will take decades given that the measurement is just now available. Science is hard. Glucose measurement is the other end of the spectrum. For diabetics the data and management is well understood, but compliance is challenging or at least not super convenient. The advances are amazing and ready now! Sun exposure is one that becomes interesting only because the data basically says to minimize exposure as much as possible—in other words there’s not really an acceptable level of UV light (i.e. SPF 40, see http://www.aad.org/media-resources/stats-and-facts/prevention-and-care/sunscreens).

Together these show the opportunities and challenges in the healthcare telemetry space. In any product design, the ability to measure something and present the measurement to a customer is not the same as being able to provide reliable and actionable information. It is critical in the design of a product to be clear on what to do when the product tells you something, lest the dreaded “Check Engine’ syndrome.

One might even offer the world’s first connected toothbrush:

Wearable communication

While many healthcare devices are wearable, the broader category itself exploded this year as has been well documented…everywhere. When it comes to sophisticated wearable communication devices, this is a year of learning products.  Most are not ready for primetime or broad usage, though many will find niches with early adopters or enthusiasts.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Consider as an example post-VHS digital formats for movies forays into optical media (LaserDisc anyone), the path from first products to broadly used products is often one with many twists and turns in basic technology and scenarios. In addition that path from the first component sized DVD player to the 6″ round portable DVD player or integrated flat screen DVD player took some time. Innovation does not happen all at once, even though we often remember it as punctuated moments in time.

There’s no need to document the dozens of communication wearables on display. Most shared the same basic characteristics, with Pebble being the established player that has already earned an enthusiastic base of early adopters. These pair with a mobile device, share notifications, and permit some level of interactivity and apps/ecosystem. Some do less and trade off towards a longer battery life by doing less. Others try to subsume the mobile device entirely and act as a phone (see below).

The primary “cause” of this is that the ability to miniaturize the hardware platform and squeeze a full software platform on the device has surpassed the ability to build a software experience and use case. These devices, by and large, are currently in the “because we can” phase of innovation. That’s not bad and in fact when software meets hardware it is often a necessary ordering.

The primary challenge, at least from my perspective, is that no one has arrived at a new use case. We’re simply looking to move some use cases of the mobile device to a wrist based device. But the device on the wrist is “less of everything”. Taking a disruption point of view, this isn’t disruptive yet. As often discussed, the first PC-derived tablets were more PCs without keyboards than they were a new set of use cases (pen based drawing/notetaking notwithstanding). It wasn’t until the iPad presented a new set of mobile scenarios and capabilities and the hardware was better able to meet the scenarios that a device without a keyboard was able to define a new use case.

Absent a use case, the dialog around wearables will just bounce around the constraints of screen size and battery life. You can only do so much with a tiny screen and a wrist sized device can only operate a screen for so long. While one likes to be notified with a UX based on a glance, it turns out this is pretty much what mobile phone designers work to do all the time and with a lot more screen real estate and elaborate UX. On those platforms the debate is an endless one around how much can you do to a notification and what are the verbs that act on it. Is a new text just read, read and reply with a canned set of replies (and can/how might those be customized), or full messaging capabilities? Do those choices extend to custom messaging apps like WhatsApp or Skype? Who will write those apps? When those apps have new features do they carry over to the wrist?

Here is one example of a fitness watch that is also full smartphone on a wrist, including a pull out Bluetooth headset.

This is a complex set of questions. From a product manager perspective, they all boil down to defining use cases and scenarios for why a device should exist. Is it a companion? Is it a replacement? What does it do uniquely such that I’d be willing to forgo other functions I already have? Disruption theory says that it is totally ok for a new product to do less, so long as it is so good at something that people want more as that’s the whole point of being disruptive.

It is still early. It is too early to judge these devices as what is possible and for most of us too early to be adopting these devices.  They are the stuff of Star Trek, which by that theory of innovation only means it is a matter of time.

Screens: 4K, curved, and skinny

If you’ve seen just one article on CES then it is certain you know that new TVs on display were both 4K and curved. Cutting to the chase, if you buy a TV in 2015 odds are it will be 4K. The rapid march to 4K is more massive than anything we’ve seen in screens. Moore’s Law is our friend here and at some point the entire supply chain will just convert to the mechanics of making 4K and it becomes essentially non-economic to maintain the old processes and supply chain. We’ve seen this with memory, storage, processors, and screens. Silicon based innovation lends itself to rapid and whole movement of products. That’s good for all of us.

Cutting to the chase, if you buy a TV in 2015 odds are it will be 4K.

For screens, 4K has two unique elements:

  • Extremely rapid cost reduction. Competition is fierce and the economics of the processes will likely drive 4K screens to “acceptable” consumer prices much more quickly than the move to flat screen or 1080P. During the show Dell announced a 4K monitor for $699. My early adopter 15″ VGA LCD costs $1999 (and weighed more than the Dell will). Yay for consumers!
  • Content will appear. While we can all bemoan the hype and failure cycle of 3D at home, which included a lack of content, there were already significant content deals for 4K, notably Netflix. While you need 15MB bandwidth for 4K the content will be there. Rest assured, the rest of the content industry heard this and so I suspect we will see brilliant 4K content of some form very rapidly. Again, yay for consumers!!

If you have any doubts, once you see a 4K screen you will want one. Put aside all the arguments about physics, optics, and more, it just feels right. In practice, what you really want are high gamut and 60fps, so let’s hope these attributes and benefits become clear to consumers. Again, this shows the value of reviews, community, and expertise in the adoption of CE.

Curved screens were somewhat of a surprise to many attendees I believe. In booth after booth people had somewhat puzzled looks at them and there seemed to be a broad effort to quiz the booth staff with “so what good is it”. Most of the time we all got the general answers about immersive experience or less reflection. Each of these to some degree are true (especially reflectivity in many situations).

Curved Montage

Again, as product managers we see a hardware technology appear because it can but the use case hasn’t yet been determined. Like the first color computer screens that many argued against claiming software was inherently black and white, curved screens are about new use cases not just curving a football game. One view around CES and you can easily see scenarios such as signage that become incredibly cool. Today signs that are interactive are much cooler than static signs (or menus and more). Signs that need to be on curved surfaces are static and boring. Maybe curved displays will be a niche at home and find themselves useful only for commercial signs. I’m going to bet on the creativity of content and product people to develop new use cases and before we know it curved screens will be ubiquitous as “flat screens”.

Finally, this year saw a great many more wide-aspect ratio screens at 21:9. For the most part, the mass market of screens are made in a small set of aspect ratios depending on mass adoption. Like film was historically, there are both benefits to this along with those that want to experiment with alternate aspect ratios. The iOS tablet world is 4:3 and the Windows/Android/HD world is 16:9. The ultra-wide 21:9 seems rather appealing for a number of use cases, including side by side and multiple inputs. If you combine the ultra-wide screen, more pixels, and curved display you recreate a developer workstation or Bloomberg terminal but with a single screen which can mean less space, easier ergonomics, and perhaps less power. Again, it seems like the use cases are going to quickly follow the technical ability to make the screen.

The product manager view of screens is to consider what you app or content can do when being projected on or making content for these new capabilities. As we saw with Retina pixel density, these changes can happen quickly and getting left behind is not always a good spot to be.

Less futzing

The evolution of most CE devices is often to more features and customization, and over time this can be viewed negatively. Certainly at some point this complexity makes products unappealing for many. The industry has a great many enthusiasts who love to customize and tweak. Analogous to the auto shows, some people used to love to look under the hood and adjust the engine.

Back in the heyday of Auto Shows (they are still huge, but CES and tech have eclipsed those shows in media coverage in my biased view), the talk was about components of cars. This dialog was broad and understood. Average consumers knew about horsepower, disc brakes, electronic fuel injection. Today cars are about design, convenience, and use-centric concepts like capacity and MPG. CES, this year in particular, has transitioned to talking and showing more about use cases and less about how products are built.

In almost all devices you have to look hard to find gigahertz or megabytes. You see tasks or uses much more up front. This isn’t always the case and often the first questions are about specs. Still, I would say a lot of “progress”.

Some examples of this jumped out at me, particularly in the gaming world. The gaming world has traditionally been split between consoles representing the true CE experience and the gaming PC which defined the ultimate enthusiast experience when it came to moding your gaming PC. For gamers or those that want to just play games this is a banner time with an explosion in gaming options. Many believe the usage in phones and tablets will dominate with casual games available in app stores. The new consoles from Sony and Microsoft promise to bring gaming to new technical levels with their advanced PC componentry in a true CE package. Finally, at CES we saw the SteamOS powered devices (PCs) and an example of a more state of the art or “modern” PC.

Steam Machine. SteamOS promises to bring the simplicity of consoles with the power of PC gaming. Some critics are saying it brings neither and is in-between. But the popularity of the Steam platform is significant with millions of intensely active members. The product manager question is whether Steam disrupts PC (or console) gaming or simply extends the life of a gaming platform that while popular is being squeezed between consoles and mobile devices. Is the SteamOS powered device re-imagination of PC gaming or an appealing convergence of the PC with consoles (see https://blog.learningbyshipping.com/2014/01/07/the-four-stages-of-disruption/)?

A Steam Machine is an Intel-based device meeting a set of baseline specs, combined with the Steam Controller and SteamOS. The debate among gamers is about the specs and capabilities of the underlying hardware along with the lack of ability to mod the devices. The Steam Machines themselves represent a broad range of “sealed case” form factors, most of which existed as Windows game PCs in various forms.

Razer Project Christine. Razer introduced Christine, which is a highly stylized modular PC. While the idea behind a modular from factor has been tried several times before, the combination of hardware interop, industrial design, and openness to accessorization (my own word) are at a unique point in time. Razer has a very active customer based that thrives the combination of gaming and accessories for gaming. It might just be that this hassle-free notion of moding a gaming PC will appeal to a broad set of PC gaming customers. In many ways this is an attempt to disrupt the PC gamer, while maintaining a commitment to customization. Project Christine beat out Steam Powered for CES Best of Show in the category.

Reduced futzing is really enabled across a broad range of CE devices because of mobile apps, WiFi/Bluetooth connectivity, and cloud services.  What used to be elaborate setup and configuration is now enabled via simple apps that connect to devices over wireless protocols.  The rich UX afforded by devices replaces single line LED displays or embedded web server experiences.  The ability to save/restore data and settings in the cloud replaces sharing via dedicated (and awkward) subset experiences for social networks. From WiFi access points to scales to cameras, we will spend (and tolerate) less time futzing and more time using CE devices.

From a product manager perspective what excites me about these two innovations and the broader theme is the move “up the stack”. Our computing industry has broadly moved to modern platforms for both hardware and software and seeing gaming move in this direction is critical to the health of this style of rich interactive gaming. It is also a natural maturing of a technology area and to resist the change essentially guarantees disruption. The market for people willing to devote time to futzing is shrinking, no matter how much we (having built more PCs than I can count) enjoyed it. There are simply too many options for how to spend more time gaming and less time futzing. Just like people want to use cars to get around, not stare under the hood and fix them before going somewhere, the move up the stack is relentless for most every consumer.

Trending up and down

To wrap up a quick look at the year over year view of CES and what is on the move taking up more floor space and mind share and what is taking less beyond the items mentioned above.

Trending Up

Android. There was a lot more Android this year than last year. Android of course is particularly popular among wearables and TVs where there is no third party option to use iOS. The inexpensive Android tablets we all heard about from the holidays were on display where you could see the dozens of OEMs packaging every conceivable screen size and spec into tablets. One note is that there was a complete absence of 4:3 Android devices, which I find interesting given the competitive nature of things. What this feels like is a reaction to avoid being like Apple, when in practice it might be that for some device sizes the squarer aspect ratio might be more convenient.

Chromebooks. Building off what we might have read as momentum in the US over the holidays was a broader presence of Chromebooks. This year saw an all-in-one along with several lighter and thinner (and still inexpensive) clamshell formats.

Phablets. It was interesting to see the number of show attendees using their really big phones (or small tablets). I would do a quick badge check and noted that more often than not the phablet user was not an employee of Samsung or LG, but just a user. I think this is a trend worth watching. If you have only one device the tradeoff towards a bigger screen becomes interesting.

WWAN connectivity. Looking back personally, I was totally wrong on WWAN connectivity. I did not see a market where the carriers would make it so easy and relatively inexpensive to add another device to a data plan. From the glucose meter to auto fleet tracking to wearables, SIM cards were everywhere. This in spite of the fact that the hardware costs are real and the data plan is real. Many products, particularly those using WWAN for sending telemetry to a cloud service, will include a SIM and fixed data plan as part of the device price or part of the service plan, which is super cool.

3D Printers. The 3D printers are all remarkable. It is hard to overstate how much this will disrupt so many fields. There’s a lot of talk about a drone delivering a product, but what about just downloading it and printing it at home. The use cases for 3D printers are not at the broad consumer level but soon will be.

Touch screens. All the major screen makers also showed screens that were touch capable. The most common touch detector was an IR field. All of these were hooked up to PCs. Every screen is a touchscreen or it feels broken.  Also pictured below is Panasonic’s 4K portable running Windows.

4K TCL touch

PC Panasonic 4K

Trending Down

PCs. While Microsoft, HP, Dell, and others having stopped exhibiting on the main show floor can easily be responsible for the lack of PCs, the reality is that PCs are part of the fabric of the technology world, but not the front and center consumer electronics device. The reality of the floor is that PCs were not part of the use cases or scenarios and the modern mobile platforms have taken over. This image below sort of summed it up. Here we had RCA showing their new PCs (fairly thick and heavy laptops) in a booth with toasters and dorm refrigerators. Yet we all know, today, the products at the show were built using PCs, the businesses are run with PCs, and even the show itself would not be possible without PCs. The focus is just changing.

Discs. There are no optical discs to be found, for storage or content. Content comes from the cloud. Content is stored in the cloud. This was the last show with discs, and they were practically not there. One might say the same for spinning media and even the satellite tuners were offering solid state storage options to reduce noise, size, and thermals.

Projectors. Another reminder of Moore’s Law as applied to glass is that absence of projectors. While there are quite a few very tiny portable projectors, by and large projectors have been replaced by simpler and brighter on wall displays (soon to be curved and 4K).

Wires. There’s almost no wire at CES anymore. Even the Monster cable booth was mostly about cleaning screens and wireless headsets more than wire. As a person who has no wired communications at home, I can relate.

Home Theater. After a decade or more of “home theater”, the drive to simplicity, the role of streaming content, unified HDMI, and the preference for mobile, has all but eliminated the idea of a complex, multi-component, theater. Today’s theater experience is so much different than emulating a movie theater in a dedicated room at home using a projector and stack of 1000 watt components. People want to watch TV but also interact at the same time and that leads to a very different environment. With the ability to watch anything instantly on a tablet, a home theater has some strong competition for attention and use cases. The lack of a need for a home media library of discs or drives also alters the need for a dedicated room. Live events and film fans still will have their dedicated experiences, but the equipment is drastically simpler.

Remote controls. The world of complex infrared controls at home is being disrupted by mobile devices. Even infrared, while simple and low cost, feels like it will be disrupted by Bluetooth or even Wi-Fi.

For those in technology, CES is really the greatest show on earth. We’re all privileged to be part of the technology industry in such a pivotal time. Next year is going to be even better. I’m counting on it.

—Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)

Bonus Photos

Tiny laptop level power supply that works by the magic of physics from Finsix in Menlo Park, CA:

FinSix power

A few hundred thousand dollars worth of add-ons to convert a Canon C500 into a studio broadcast camera:

Canon broadcast camera

Sony’s full family of Xperia Android devices is also water-safe. These are all worth a second look I believe.

Mobile Sony differentiation

Example use case for 4K screens with 4 up 1080P security cameras (also on the floor, 4K recording cameras):

Case for iPhone that embeds the ability to take infrared images. Another example of “possible, but still developing the core use case”. This was developed by FLIR, an existing maker of IR cameras:

Bluetooth headphones plus earmuffs in one.

Fun Fuzzy headphones

Example use case for curved signage. Wouldn’t this be a more interesting booth with a moving sign:

Written by Steven Sinofsky

January 13, 2014 at 6:00 am

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