The difficult Google play in China

Early last month there were some news circulating about Google plotting a return to China. The past few days there were also increased speculation after Chinese netizens discovered some changes to what are being hosted domestically by Google.

So far most of the above are just speculation. But it’s worth doing a quick thought exercise.

First, the market context:

  • In Google’s 5 year absence from China, the smartphone revolution has really taken over the market and there’s arguably half a billion users of Android devoid of any Google services
  • There’s been a big entrepreneurship boom (which may be going into hard times currently), with several cycles of intense competition in a number of sectors – staring with the 1,000 groupon clone wars of 2010, to the more recent taxi-app wars and the broader O2O wars. And of course let’s not forget the home-grown Android vendors such as Xiaomi and the battles in the Android space. From the ashes of these intense battlegrounds have risen a number of companies with $10B+ valuations1
  • The traditional big 3 – “BAT” have extended their empires in numerous directions and continue to compete in multiple fronts. For example, Alibaba has made big bets in film entertainment and Tencent is eager to follow suit
  • Apple has seen major success in China – it has generated over $45B revenue in Q1-Q3 of its FY2015, which is about double of Google’s entire worldwide revenue in 2009, right before it exited China

In short, the 5-year opportunity cost for Google in China has turned out to be huge, which is not surprising then if they are indeed seeking an return.

As an aside – I always thought Google’s decision in early 2010 was an incredibly difficult decision, and one which I have always disagreed with (to the detriment of my friendships with some American friends). Not to be overly sentimental, but one of my biggest points of disagreement was that this decision went against Google’s own company mission – to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – with such a mission, how could Google shy away from serving Chinese users? Wasn’t exiting China a cop-out to avoid the really tough choices of operating in that environment?

But to come back on-topic – if exiting China was tough, coming back will be tougher:

  • What is Google’s value proposition to Chinese consumers? Most of its services have been fully replaced by local competitors, who are arguably more nimble and responsive to local user needs
  • What does Google focus on? The rumored Google Play makes some sense, since they should prioritize re-establishing a position in mobile, while desktop search is slowly but surely becoming irrelevant
  • Can Google find any local allies? Out of BAT, Alibaba probably has the least conflicts of interest with Google (Tencent / Baidu both own big Android app stores); in the Android vendor space, it has already partnered with Huawei for a Nexus device, so perhaps Huawei can return the favor somewhat in China
  • How much autonomy / empowerment will the local team have? Can they attract the type of talent they want, given their flip-flopping in China?
  • Fundamentally, how much product experience is Google willing to sacrifice/compromise to meet the government’s requirements?

Given how nasty the 2010 exit was from a relationship stand-point, I suspect Google’s return will be tiny baby steps at first.

  1. Xiaomi, Didi-Kuadi, and the new Meituan-Dianping merger are a few leading examples

To B or to C, that is the question

Jon Russel of TheNextWeb had this interesting tweet the other day:

 To paraphrase Ben Evans’ excellent post a couple of weeks ago, this is an unfair comparison, but a relevant one.

There are a couple of thoughts that I have on this. Firstly, the clichéd “necessity is the mother of invention.” Asian social media companies have generally been pioneers in the space of monetization via virtual goods, whereas Silicon Valley companies have focused more on ad-based monetization. IMO a big factor is the availability and maturity of advertising dollars – if the US does not have a thriving advertising industry and sophisticated advertisers (the blue chip companies and their global brands), Silicon Valley biz models will look very different.

Secondly, an ad-based biz model (B2B) demands a fundamentally different set of organizational structure and capabilities from a virtual goods biz model (B2C). In Silicon Valley, the former often requires an ad sales force fluent with convincing Madison Avenue ad execs to allocate client ad spend, as well as building the tools and support systems needed. In Asia, the latter model requires sophisticated retail / payments capabilities, such as a distribution network for physical gift cards that consumers can buy to convert to virtual currency (which can then be spent on virtual goods), as well as handling various online payment schemes (or building your own from scratch) and fraud, and also a customer support service that can handle literally tens of millions customers.

Another way to look at the fundamentally different capabilities required: ad-based biz model is generally about monetizing user data – user behavior / intent that advertisers value, so data aggregation / modeling / predictions would be key tech capabilities; whereas virtual goods biz model is about creating demand for content – “I want to buy that virtual rose so I can express my feelings to my loved one” – and hence requires a content pipeline as well as understanding of what types of content sells.

Thirdly, from a product perspective, “adding advertising to my free service without annoying my users (or not annoying them to the point of churning)” is a very different design goal from “providing value-added services that a (typically small) % of my users are willing to pay for”. Advertising in exchange for a free service is something that users tolerate; getting users to actually pay real cash is generally speaking much harder.

To be clear, I’m not saying that one model is better than the other, simply that two similar services (from users’ perspective) could mean fundamentally different company strategies.

I’ll end this post with another set of examples for comparison: and YY streaming. Both operate online streaming services in the video-games space. Twitch monetizes via video ads (as well as cut of premium subscription fees). YY mostly monetizes via virtual goods that viewers buy to gift streamers in the public chat feed that accompanies the stream – if that sounds bizarre, you really need to see it in action.

Interoperability as signal of relative market performance

There were two thematically similar pieces of news today – the first, Blackberry announced that it would add the once-popular BBM messaging service to iOS and Android; the second, Microsoft announced that now supports chatting with Google accounts.

Going back a few years, both pieces of news would be bombshells, with bloggers likely proclaiming that hell has frozen over. In today’s tech scene, both are of minor note.

In grad school, a tech strategy professor had made the observation that efforts at providing interoperability usually make strategic sense for players who are trying to catch up. For market leaders, generally there is little strategic rationale to support your competitors’ platforms. The classic example of this would be productivity software, most famously office suites. Even today, there are a few competitors to Microsoft Office. Supporting Microsoft’s document formats are a core feature; it would be a non-starter to try to get adoption when you don’t support .doc / .ppt / .xls. Conversely, there is usually no reason at all for Microsoft Office to support competing office products’ proprietary formats. (Office may support some open standards, but that’s another story)

So one way to read these pieces of news today, is to see them as signal that Blackberry and Microsoft have on a strategic level acknowledged the dominance of its respective competitors. For Blackberry, even just a few years ago BBM was seen as a crown jewel, a killer app for its loyal user-base. To add cross-platform support would be like opening the floodgates for a mass exodus of users. – Well, that exodus happened anyway. For Microsoft, its web services have long offered some forms of interoperability (e.g. facebook chat support on Windows Messenger), but outright admitting that Gmail is more popular seems to be a first (just the title of the linked official post itself is revealing).

To extrapolate on the observation, Rene Ritchie made the observation that “as of today, every major mobile competitor… also makes apps for iOS“. This is obviously tied to Apple’s vertical integration business model, which is asymmetric compared to Google / Microsoft’s more horizontal play (hence, it is a much bigger deal for Apple to even consider making its software available to other platforms). And you can also make the comment that Apple doesn’t really have proprietary killer apps that would benefit from being cross-platform. But at least partially it is also a signal of Apple’s platform strength.

How long can content region-locking last?

One of the questions I’ve pondered a lot recently is the topic of content region-locking. I’m mostly talking about the practice of TV/film rights owners reselling their content to different local providers across the world, with each local provider only having license to distribute the content in their local territory. Examples of this are the region codes in DVDs (and in VHS previously), and of course different TV networks across the world showing the same show to their local audience. This has been a great demonstration of price discrimination in action, and has generally helped rights owners maximize their revenue/profit.

In the analog, or rather, pre-streaming world, there were attempts to arbitrage the system, with varying degrees of success. Pirated satellite TV has been around for ages, especially in emerging markets such as many parts of Asia. And of course the whole pirated DVD industry, which was quite dominant in countries such as China – as evidenced by DVD hardware manufacturers having full region unlock as a must-have feature – if your brand of DVD players can only play DVDs coded for the Chinese market, you might as well not go into business. In mature markets, it usually wasn’t worth the effort for the average person to try to steal satellite TV; although western visitors touring China usually tried to take full advantage of the local DVD prices, knowing that they were buying pirated copies of the whole box-set of Lost (or some other long-running series).

In the Netflix/Hulu world, where rights owners are hesitantly putting their content online, the situation suddenly gets very complex. Rights owners, used to thinking of the virtues of region-locking, are rightfully reluctant to give any one streaming provider (say, Youtube) worldwide rights to their highly valued content. This is why Netflix has to expand one country at a time, while they carefully negotiate their rights; this is also why you can only watch Hulu from the US.

However, in the online / streaming world, the hoops required to jump through to pretend to be a visitor from the US (and therefore acquire the content on Netflix/Hulu) is dramatically lower vs. the offline / physical world (where you literally had to buy a plane ticket to go to China to enjoy the low cost of content). And service providers such as Netflix and Hulu thereby have a real issue of enforcing their rights management vs. harming the user experience of the primary users they are trying to serve. The monthly cost of getting a VPN that offers a US IP address is usually less than $10 – unless Hollywood can get regulators to regulate VPNs, it is hard to see how they can avoid a continued in-flood of global traffic to Hulu (as more content is put online, the value of VPNs will rise further, and more people will adopt VPNs), which undermines the entire premise of region-locking.

What’s even worse than global traffic flooding to Hulu is the fact that there are more and more content being put online legally outside the US. As US TV series have caught on in China (in a big way) in the past 5-10 years, the leading Chinese video sites are coming to Hollywood to acquire content. On sites such as Youku and Sohu, top programming from AMC such as The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men are all legally available (usually in a few hours after they air in the US) to users from a Chinese IP address, all free of charge. There will certainly be entrepreneurial efforts in the US to arbitrage this discrepancy – after all, why should you buy/rent these shows from iTunes when you can access them from Chinese providers with a free Chrome extension(search “unblock youku”) or a Chinese IP VPN?

This certainly begs the question – is it legal to get a VPN to enjoy content that was licensed to a certain region? I am not a legal expert, but even I can see that this easily crosses into net neutrality territory and is a legal mess for rights owners to try to enforce. Furthermore, there are so many legitimate uses of VPN tech (prime example – bypass censorship) that it seems unfathomable that VPN providers would comply to limit/monitor/block VPN traffic when it comes to video. And while services such as Hulu can be pressured to improve their tech to try to block VPN IPs (is that legal?), or add more screening measures (e.g. you must create an account with a US credit card, or show you are living in the US via a utility bill statement), all these would certainly hurt the user experience – after all, I’m just trying to watch some TV, why do you need my identity?

At the end of the day – getting a US VPN to watch Hulu is a lot better than going to to download the same show. At least in the first case Hulu generated ad revenue from the visitor, which rights owners should get a % share of. The question is how mainstream such activities can get, and how fast – if an entrepreneurial VPN provider tries to make a marketing push by highlighting the rich content available in overseas markets, will rights owners be able to effectively respond?

Google Keep’s reception woes a lesson in community management

Google launched a new product called Keep today, and the tech commentary has been quite negative. What’s interesting about this narrative is how little of it is about the actual product itself. Om Malik’s post is very representative in this regard, with a pun jab in the title. And the responses on Twitter aren’t much better.

The general sentiment is – why should I use Google Keep, when you’ve just shown with Google Reader that you can shut down a product at whim? This may be a valid sentiment to have, and it is also only natural for tech bloggers to seek drama (in the interest of generate page views) – so this should have been something that Google product managers have anticipated in advance. Especially given that the blowback from the Google Reader development has been quite strong (a lot of discussion, petitions, competing products jumping on the wave to draw users etc.) and is still very much ongoing, the Google Keep announcement should have been delayed or tweaked to acknowledge the sentiment over Reader.

Overall, the Google Reader situation and the Google Keep launch timing shows a general passiveness on Google’s end to engage with its user-community in online dialogues. It is very interesting given the overwhelming strategic emphasis on Google+, why aren’t Google’s product teams using Google+ and/or other social media to engage their end-user communities? Is there a forum where Googlers regularly interact with end-users? How often has various Google teams done Reddit AMAs (or something similar – it seems a few Google teams have done AMAs on Reddit the past couple of years)?

These questions may be somewhat unfairly overweighing the importance of these community engagement channels, since Google primarily provides a utility-like service (search, email), and alas, most consumers don’t find it interesting talking with their gas, electric or internet provider. However, Google also maintains the image of a bleeding-edge innovation company (Google Glass, self-driving cars etc.), and in that regard it is crucial that Google effectively engage and manage its community, especially the early adopters and vocal advocates.

In the past Google has been seen as the company that does no evil and could do no wrong. It had a golden brand and it could dependably rely on a host of external advocates to defend itself and push its world-view. That has obviously changed, and Google needs to start showing sensibilities towards its end users. Addressing the ongoing complaint towards Google Reader would be a good place to start – it doesn’t need to change its decision, but it should at least provide more context over how the decision was made and perhaps make some compromises / compensation to appease the community.

How the West was Won (or, another round of “open” vs. “closed”)

John Gruber posted a critique of a Tim Wu piece in The New Yorker. The ideas in the Gruber post are nothing new, but it’s interesting to see this topic come up time and time again.

Wu’s basic argument is “open beats closed,” with the modifier that “closed can beat open, but you have to be a genius.” Unsurprisingly, he enlists Wintel and Google as supporting evidence for why open beats closed.

Gruber specifically disagrees with Wu’s logic for why Windows defeated Mac in the original PC platform wars of the 80s-90s. In Gruber’s view, Windows won not because it was more open, but because Mac innovation had stalled, allowing Windows to catch up. He uses Mac’s brief period of allowing 3rd party licensing as evidence that being more open did not help Apple grow the Mac business; quite the contrary, after Jobs came back and closed off Mac licensing, Apple begun its resurgence.

Over at Techcrunch, Michael Arrington chimes in by stating that the Internet was the unmentioned factor that leveled the playing field for Macs – because the Internet became the core application, it mattered less that Macs had far fewer compatible software.

To me, the question to ask is (and has always been) why did Wintel win in the 80s/90s, and why was the Mac able to stage a come-back in the 2000s. Open vs. closed is simply a popular variation on this core question, because it has been twisted by folks such as Wu to be the critical success factor. It is not.

Wintel was immensely successful due to its leverage of network effects – i.e. the utility of the product grew as more people used it. Microsoft Word is powerful because everyone uses it, and the .doc format is near ubiquitous; if only one person used Microsoft Word, it wouldn’t be that useful outside of creating documents to print.

Wintel was also a two-sided network made up of both hardware/software vendors on one side and consumers on the other. This further reinforced the network effects on the consumer side.

The fact that Wintel chose to be “open” at the hardware layer (can be installed on any IBM-compatible PC) certainly helped drive adoption, but does not itself create network effects. The simple counter-argument is iOS – iOS is certainly “closed” at the hardware layer (exclusive to Apple’s products), but that does not prevent iOS users enjoy the network effects of iOS-exclusive apps (such as Instagram, which for a long time was iOS-only; another example is iMessage, which will probably always be exclusive to iOS).

Pre-Internet, the core application of computers were productivity applications such as Office, and Microsoft Office was (and Lotus 123 etc., before Office) exclusive to Wintel. In a sense, it is a bit of a chicken and egg problem – Wintel’s “openness” to hardware vendors drove OS market share, which in turn amplified network effects of the most popular applications on this platform, which in turn lead to more OS market share. It was a great, virtuous cycle.

It’s hard to say what choices Jobs would have made had he stayed at Apple in the late 80s; it’s a convenient side argument that Apple lost the 80s/90s platform wars due to poor business leadership, however I find this side argument to be often distracting.

Moving on to the late 90s, Arrington is correct in stating that the Internet leveled the playing field. Specifically, as the Internet became the core application, it removed the network effects exclusive to Wintel thanks to Office and other Windows-exclusive software. (Jobs’ successful negotiation to get Microsoft to develop Office for Mac is also Apple’s attempt at leveling the playing field.) And ever since then, network effects have had diminishing influence on PC platform wars – this is the underlying reason why Macs could stage a come-back from low single-digit market share; the beautiful execution (consistently excellent hardware/software iterations) also certainly helped.

As a corollary of this observation (diminishing network effects due to the Internet being the ultimate cross-platform application), we can predict that in the mobile platform wars, despite the seemingly dominant positions of Android and iOS, it is certainly possible for a late-comer (such as the new Firefox OS, and/or other new entrants) to enter the market and capture significant value. However, the success or not of those mobile OSes will not be determined by whether they are “open” or “closed” – by that measure, we can certainly already declare Firefox OS as the winner. The next few years in mobile will be very interesting.

Engadget reviews Pixel (or, how not to design for real-world users)

Sums up what I think of the device nicely with these two sentences:

For an MSRP that is on par with some of the best laptops in the world, the Pixel doesn’t provide anywhere near as much potential when it comes to functionality. It embraces a world where everyone is always connected and everything is done on the web — a world that few people currently live in.

Essentially, a product that was designed for Googlers, not for real-world users. This is not the first time Google has committed this mistake. It’s good that Googlers are passionate about what they work on; it’s bad that they equate themselves as good samples of real-world demand. And to be frank this is a very common mistake to make, and this is why at my work-place one of the most common phrases I hear is “I know I’m not real player[don’t represent a real user], but this is how I think about this feature…” so that at least the internal feedback is explicitly qualified.

2012 / 2013 tech thoughts

Here’s a quick and dirty post to capture some of the thoughts that I’ve been brewing.

2012 to me was a year of continued trends in tech. Looking back, I couldn’t name any major disruptions in the major consumer-facing sectors of tech. The continued trends that I see are:

  • Rise of tablets vs. decline of PCs in all form-factors. The “tablets as cars vs. PCs as trucks” metaphor seems to be materializing everyday
  • Continued penetration of smartphones
  • Within smartphones, the platform wars mostly continued previous trajectory. Apple maintained, if not grew, its overall market share and leadership in the higher end segment. Android market share continued to be fueled by low-end devices (essentially, Android-powered smartphones at price points that replaced feature phones, and probably used as feature phones, if the mobile web usage data is any indication). Blackberry / Windows Phone remain on the fringe, while there continues to be new platform entrants (Tizen etc.)
  • In terms of apps and services, perhaps I’ve not been paying close attention, but there wasn’t really a defining new service that broke out (would Pinterest count? I don’t use it enough to comment). (Obviously not every year would there be a new Google / Facebook / Amazon / Twitter)
  • For buzz-words, “cloud” / “big data” are not new concepts by any measure, but they have gone more mainstream
  • crowd-funding (Kickstarter) got a lot more mainstream, but I personally would lump it together with the rise of angel investing a few years back as niche alternatives to raising capital. It’s a compelling alternative for very specific teams

Looking ahead to the rest of 2013, these are the things that I think may define the year:

  • Intensified competition to be the “center” of the living room, from all angles. Maybe Apple will do a real TV. Current TV brands will also further their “smart TV” offerings. There’s also a whole host of set-top box alternatives, anything from dedicated streaming boxes to new gaming consoles such as Ouya / the “Steam Box”
  • Related to the above, will this year be the year that the mainstream TV content model first see major disruption? There’s been a storm brewing for the past few years, but we’ve yet to see what the storm actually looks like. With every year more and more pieces seem to be coming together though
  • In mobile, I don’t expect smartphone landscape to change much, but it would be extremely interesting to watch how Android vendors compete against each other. Would Motorola stage a comeback / would Google become more determined to own more of the mobile value via hardware sales? Would Samsung make major platform decisions in response?
  • In tablets, I also don’t expect the big picture to change much, but would be interesting to watch how Android tablets continue to materialize and compete against Apple (as well as each other)


The Legacy of Steve Jobs

Like most people interested in technology and business, I picked up a copy of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. It is a good book and will mostly satisfy any outsiders’ curiosity at the man’s life, his idiosyncrasies (there were many), his faults and fallacies, and his achievements. What I want to talk about here is his legacy.

He was not a perfect person

FIrst off, and just to clear the discussion, Steve Jobs was clearly not a perfect person. He had many issues. He was a jerk a lot of the time, to a lot of people. He liberally took credit for other people’s ideas. If you hated him before, the book will not change your opinion of the man.

But he also had many strengths. He was a natural marketer and negotiator. He was diligent, and learnt through his failures to be a great manager. And of course he was a visionary, in the truest sense of the word. This discussion, however, is not about how much I admire him (or not), but what I took away as key lessons from his endeavors.

“Open” and “Closed” are both valid choices

One of the most straightforward take-aways from Jobs’ work in the past 10 years is that vertical integration remains a valid business model. Tech fans like to frame this debate as “Open” versus “Closed”, and associate all kinds of philosophical and ideological meaning with it; and clearly Jobs himself had some ideological bias towards “Closed”, but at the end of the day, they are both perfectly valid business choices.

As my favorite business school professor likes to say, no company is 100% “open”, nor is any company 100% “closed”. “Open” and “closed” are a set of strategic trade-offs, just like any strategic decision is. For Apple, “opening” up their platform, such as allowing other hardware vendors to make Mac clones (or iOS clones), clearly has major pros as well as cons. The question is does the trade-off fit with the broader set of strategic choices the company has made – in Apple’s case, “opening” its software platforms clearly contradicts with its vertical integration strategy, and causes it more harm than benefits.

Even Apple itself provides a great example of why sometimes it might make sense to go the other direction. Jobs strongly resisted porting iTunes to the Windows platform. His argument was that by bundling iPods with Macs via the iTunes software, he could lead to additional sales of Macs. This argument had some merit, but it also was clearly inhibiting the growth of iPods as an individual product category. In the end, Jobs was smart enough to be pragmatic and allow his team to develop iTunes for Windows – “hell froze over,” as he would say.

This pragmatism, and the realization of “open” and “closed” as trade-offs (rather than which is better in an absolute sense), is extremely important, as an organization would otherwise be limiting its own strategic direction. For example, we should not be at all surprised if after the Google-Motorola deal is complete that Android becomes a much more “closed” offering.

The (revised) 80/20 rule – the 20% that makes a product “insanely great” takes 80% of the time[1]

One of my main revelations from the biography was just how hard it was to get something perfect. For example, it was a ridiculous amount of work for Steve Jobs to get the music labels onboard with selling their music on the iTunes store, and this had little direct relationship with the sales of iPod hardware. But Jobs believed, correctly, that making the entire user experience with mp3s as painless as possible would reap great rewards in the long run.

It was certainly eye-opening to me to see how difficult it can be sometimes to make progress on the smallest things. To execute against a simple strategy, such as “get publishers to launch their books and magazines on the iPad,” it took Jobs and his senior team countless pitches and meetings.

As most companies don’t spend the 80% of work it takes to get that last 20% right, they often look at what Apple has been pulling off and see magic while showing disbelief. That was the industry’s reaction when Jobs pulled off the music label deals for iTunes. That was the industry’s reaction when he announced the iPhone. And clearly, almost two years after the iPad was announced, competitors are still “flummoxed” in terms of a response.

Focus is key

A corollary of the previous point is that focus is critical. (Larry Page should take the advice that Steve Jobs offered him very seriously – focus on five products.) From a management theory perspective, this is nothing new, but few organizations are as relentless as Apple is at its execution.

Apple’s entire product portfolio can be laid out on one table. It is only because of this, that Apple’s senior management can have enough time to make each one of those products great as opposed to good.

On the flip side, the inability to focus is also why incumbents give startups opportunities to establish a foothold in the market. For example, from a pure strategy perspective, there are few reasons why Facebook cannot completely own the mobile check-in space (Foursquare), or the daily deal space (Groupon), or any of the other hot social trends. Or, in the case of Google, why they cannot completely shut out Kayak, Yelp, or any other vertical search providers. Yet both Facebook and Google clearly haven’t been able to do so. Leaving aside many other factors, the 80/20 rule above is one major explanation.

If Facebook focused exclusively on check-ins, or if Google focused exclusively on one or two search verticals, there would be little that these hot startups can leverage to compete. But focus is hard because it means saying no to incremental growth opportunities and leaving money on the table. And when a company feels it is invincible it is hard to say no. It took Steve Jobs ten years in the “wilderness” and Apple 90 days from bankruptcy to realize how valuable having a focus is.

The organization is his greatest legacy

The last revelation I had from reading the book is still to be proven, but it could be the most profound. During Jobs’ second stint at Apple, he had a clear vision that went beyond building great products and making Apple the best technology company globally; he wanted to build a lasting organization.

Ironically, one of the biggest criticisms that people have for Apple is that it is a one-man show. And over the years investors have continually undervalued the stock because of this. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t help himself in this regard, due to his inclination to take credit (as the book showed, Jony Ive was at times deeply unhappy about not getting enough credit). But consequentially this may also make it all the more magical when people realize what a lasting organization he has built.

What is magical about Apple is not its products. Its products are the output of a process, and it is that process (and the organization which embodies it) that is magical.

Wait, critics of Apple say, just wait until it has a flop – Apple is so hit-driven that all it takes is one flop. Interestingly, people said the exact same of that other Steve Jobs creation – Pixar. Pixar has defied all conventional wisdom in the film-making industry, by making hit after hit after hit after hit[2]. Pixar’s process of creating its products has already become textbook material.

Apple’s process is just as powerful. It is a process that defies conventional business thinking (“open” trumps “closed”?); it is a process that combines a passion for perfection with a relentless focus; and it is a process that goes beyond the influence of any individual[3].

Obviously, the jury is still out on this one, but I have plenty of confidence that Apple will continue to surprise and delight us, for many years to come. This will be the biggest test of Jobs, and it will be by far his biggest legacy.

[1] Indeed, this is perhaps the counter-definition of 80/20, as many companies would make it a strategy to be content with achieving 80% greatness with 20% work, in the name of efficiency.

[2] Granted, Cars 2 looks uninspired, but I will not pass more judgment as I haven’t seen it or the original Cars

Can Chromebook be more than a “noble experiment”?

David Pogue’s review of the new Google Chromebook hardware by Samsung calls it a “noble experiment”. The question is, can Google’s Chrome OS ever be more than that?

For one thing, if hardware vendors and distribution partners find consumer interest lacking, Google will have to sweeten the incentives for them to keep churning out hardware and pushing it through retail. Pogue’s review does a very good job summarizing the current issues with the offering, which will likely tank sales; the bigger question is whether Google’s philosophy and vision with Chrome can materialize in the broader ecosystem – that is, a browser as the OS paradigm of computing. This seems quaintly a very desktop centric view of the world; with all kinds of mobile devices gaining broad adoption, why should we continue to expect the browser at front and center of how consumers access the Internet?

There is no destined outcome in terms of the “native” versus. “browser” “war”; this is dependent on how the players in each camp fight for ecosystem support and consumer adoption. And that’s where Google’s own hedge against Chrome – Android – is the second major factor against Chromebook’s potential. The managers running Android and Chrome will probably characterize their respective businesses as in a “friendly competition”; however, when they are competing in anything from internal engineering resources, corporate budgets, to external hardware partners and developer support, it shouldn’t be a big surprise that outsiders will see a lot of conflicted messages, and therefore question the strategy.

Count me a skeptic.