May 13

Beware of strangers bearing subscriptions

Stop for a second and think about everything you subscribe to. These are things that you pay monthly or annually for, that if you didn’t pay for, some service would discontinue.

The list probably includes everything from utilities to reading material, and most likely a streaming or media service like Netflix or Hulu, or a subscription to Amazon Prime, Xbox Live or iTunes Match.

I’ve been noticing a tendency for seemingly everything to move towards subscriptions. Frankly, it irritates me and I’m not really excited about the idea.

I understand and accept that natural gas, electricity, waste management, and (ick) even insurance need to be paid for regularly so we can maintain a certain lifestyle. But the tendency to treat software as a utility, while somewhat logical, isn’t necessarily a win for the consumer or the business (it depends on the package being offered, and how often you would upgrade if you weren’t being offered a subscription).

That puzzle, of course, depends on the consumer or business to not bother to do the math and just assume it’s a better deal (or get befuddled trying to decode the comparison), and just subscribing. Consumers, and frankly many businesses, are not great at doing that math. Many subscriptions are also – literally – incomparable with any peer perpetual license. Trying to compare Office 365 and Office 2013 for consumers is actually relatively easy. Even comparing simple business licensing of Office 365 vs. on-premises isn’t that hard. Trying to do it in a large business, where it can intertwine with an Enterprise Agreement (enterprise-wide licensing agreement), is horribly complex and hard to compare.

Most subscriptions are offered in the hope that they will become an evergreen – something that automatically renews on a monthly or annual basis. Most of these are, frankly, awful, in my opinion. Let me explain why.

Recall the label on the outside of many packaged foods in the US. You know the one. Think about the serving size. This is the soda bottle or bag of chips where it says 2.5 servings, though most consumers will drink or eat the whole thing at one sitting. Consumers (and again, many non-IT business decision makers) are not really great about doing the long-term accounting here. A little Hulu here. A little Amazon Prime there. An iTunes Match subscription. Add on Office 365… Eventually, all these little numbers add up to big numbers. But like calorie counting, people often lose track of the sunk costs they’re signing up for. We wonder why America has a debt problem? Because we eat consumer services like there’s no bill at the end of the meal.

You don’t need to count every calorie – but man, you need to be aware before you have a problem.

I’ve become a big fan over the last several years of Willard Cochrane, an economist who spent most of his life analyzing and writing about the American family farm. Cochrane created an eponym, “Cochrane’s Treadmill”, which describes the never-ending treadmill that farmers are forced into. Simplistically, Cochrane’s Treadmill can be described as follows.

Farm A buys a new technology that gives them a higher yield, it forces down the market price of the commodity they produce. Farm B is then forced to buy that new technology in order to improve their yield in order to  even maintain the income they had before farm A bought that technology.

By acquiring the technology, Farm A starts an unwinnable race, where he (economically) is pitted against farmer B in trying to make more money, generally from the same amount of land. Effectively, it is mutually assured destruction. Work harder, pay more, earn less.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently trying to simplify my life. I’ve been working to remove software, hardware, and services that add complexity, rather than simplicity, to my life. As humans, we often buy things on a whim thinking (incorrectly), “this new <thing> will dramatically improve my life”. After all, the commercial told you it would! Often this isn’t the case.

Without getting off on an environmentalist hippie trip here, I’d like to circle back to farming for a second. Agricultural giants like Monsanto have inserted themselves into the farming input cycle in a very aggressive way. If we go back 100 years, farmers didn’t pay an industrial concern every year for pesticides, and they most certainly didn’t pay them an annual license fee for seeds (farmers are forbidden to save licensed genetically modified seeds every year, as they have done for millennia). As a result, farmers are not only creating a genetic monoculture that is likely more susceptible to disease, but they are subscribing to annual licensure of the seed and most likely an ever-increasing dosage of pesticides in order to defend against plants, insects, or other pests that have developed defenses against them. It is Cochrane’s Treadmill defined. Even worse, if a farmer wanted to discontinue use of the licensed seed, it’s unclear to me if they actually could. Monsanto has aggressively gone after farmers who may have even accidentally planted their seeds due to contamination. Can a farmer actually quit using licensed seed and not pay for it next year? I don’t know the answer.

I bring this up because I believe that it exemplifies the risks of subscriptions in general. Rather than a perpetual use right (farmers saving seed every year), farmers are licensing an annual subscription with no escape hatch. Imagine subscribing to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering and never being able to quit it? Whether in the form of carrots – “sweeteners” of sorts added to many subscriptions (such as the much more liberal 5 device use rights of Office 365), or sticks (virtualization or license reassignment rights only available with Microsoft Software Assurance), there are explicit risks of jumping into using almost any piece of software without carefully examining both the short-term use rights and long-term availability rights. It may appear I’m picking on Microsoft here. I’m not doing so intentionally – I’m just intimately, painfully, aware of how they license software. This could apply to Adobe, Oracle, or likely any ISV… and even some IHVs.

Google exemplifies another side of this, where you can’t really be certain how long they will continue to offer a service. Whether it’s discontinuing consumer-grade services like Reader, or discontinuing the free level of Apps for Business, before subscribing to Google’s services an organization should generally not only raise questions around privacy and security, but just consider the long-term viability of the service. “Will Google keep this service alive in the future?” Perhaps that sounds cynical – but I believe it’s a legitimate concern. If you’re moving yourself or your business to a subscription service (heck, even a free one), you owe it to yourself to try and ascertain how long you’ve got before you can’t even count on that service anymore.

While I may be an Apple fan, and Apple doesn’t seem to be as bullish on subscriptions, one can point to the hardware upgrade gravy train that they have created and see that it’s really just a hardware subscription. If you want the latest software and services from Apple, you have to buy a new phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop within Apple’s set intervals or be left behind. Businesses that are increasing their use of Apple technology – whether they pay for it or leave it to the employee to pay for – should be careful too. Staying up-to-date, including staying secure, with Apple generally means staying relatively up-to-date with hardware.

In The Development of American Agriculture, Cochrane reasoned that <profits> “will be captured by the business firm in financial control”, and would no longer go to farmers. Where initially the farm ecosystem consisted of supplier (farmer) and consumer, industrial agriculture giants have inserted themselves into the process of commodity creation – more and more industrialists demanding a growing annual cut from the income of (already struggling) American farmers.

Whether we’re talking seeds/pesticides, software, utilities, or any other subscription, there is a risk and a benefit that should be clearly understood. But I believe that even more than “this year”, where the immediate gratification is like consuming the 2.5 servings I mentioned earlier, both consumers and especially businesses need to think long-term; “Where will this service be in 3 years?”, “Will we be paying more and getting less?”, “If we go there, can we get out? How?”

When you subscribe to anything, you’re not taking on a product, you’re taking on a partner. Your ability to take on that partner depends upon your current financial position and your obligations to that partner, both now and in the future. While many businesses can surely find the risk/benefit analysis of a given subscription works out in the subscriber’s benefit (if they are really using the service regularly, and it provides an invaluable function that can’t be built internally or completed by perpetually licensed technology), I believe that companies should be cautious about taking on “subscription weight” without sufficiently examining and understanding 1) how much they really need the services offered by that subscription, 2) what the the short-term benefits and long-term costs of the subscription really are, 3) the risks of subscriptions (cost increase and service volatility among them), and 4) how that subscription compares in terms of use rights, costs, and risks, with any custom developed or perpetually licensed offering that can perform similar tasks.

If it seems like I’m anti-subscription, I guess you could say I am. If you want a cut of my income, earn it. Most evergreen subscriptions aren’t worth it to me. I think too many consumers and businesses fall prey to the fact that “just subscribing” rather than building and owning a solution, or buying a perpetually licensed one, sounds easier, so they go that route – and wind up stuck there.

Mar 13

One release away from irrelevance

A few weeks ago on Twitter, I said something about Apple, and someone replied back something akin to, “Apple is only one release away from irrelevance.”

Ah, but you see… we all are. In terms of sustainability, if you believe “we get this version released, and we win”, you lose. Whether you have competitors today, or you have a market that is principally yours, if there is enough opportunity for you, there’s enough appeal for someone else to enter it too.

A book I recently read discussed the first generation Ford Taurus. Started at the cusp of the 1980’s, after a decade of largely mediocre vehicles from Ford, the Taurus (and a handful of other vehicles that arrived near the same time) changed the aesthetic experience we expected from cars. The book’s author comments that Ford had even largely stopped using it’s blue oval insignia during the 1970’s, perhaps out of concerns that the vehicles didn’t represent the quality values that the blue oval should represent. Thing is, you very clearly get a picture that as the vehicle neared completion, the team “hit the wall” in marathoning parlance. They shipped, congratulated each other, and moved on to other projects. Rather than turning around and immediately beginning work on a next model to iterate the design and own the market, they stalled out for nearly a decade, only to do the same massive run in order to get the next iteration of the vehicle out the door (documented in yet another book). But I digress.

Many people often ask who Microsoft’s biggest competitor is. It isn’t Oracle. It isn’t startups. It’s Microsoft. Every 2-5 years, Microsoft replaces (and sometimes displaces) their own shipped X-1 products with new versions. If those new versions don’t include enough features and value so that customers can feel they are getting their money’s worth, they’ll stall out on older versions. We’ve seen this with Windows, where many businesses – and consumers, have stalled out on a 12 year old OS because “it’s good enough”, or Office 2003, because not only is it “good enough”, but the Ribbon (and it’s half-completed existence in Office 2007) scared away many customers. It’s gotten better in each iteration since – but the key question is always, “is there enough value in there to pull customers forward”?

I believe that the first thing you have to firmly grasp in technology – or really in business as a whole – is that nothing is forever.  You must figure out how to out-innovate yourself, to evolve and grow, even if it means jettisoning or submarining entire product lines – in order to create new ones that can take you forward again. Or disappear.

I’ve been rather surprised when I’ve said this, how defensive some people have gotten. Most people don’t like to ponder their own mortality. They sure don’t like to ponder the mortality of their employer or the platform that they build their business upon. But I think it is imperative that people begin doing exactly that.

There will come a day when we will likely talk about every tech giant of today in the past tense. Many may survive, but will be shadows (red dwarves, as I said on Twitter last night) of themselves. Look at how many tech giants of the 1970’s-1990’s are gone today – or are largely services driven organizations rather than technological innovators.

When that follower said that Apple was only one release away from irrelevance, I replied back with something similar to, “Almost every company is. It’s just a question of whether they realize it and act on it or not.”

Mar 13

Always Be Unique

Earlier today, this tweet showed up in my Twitter timeline. It leads with the text: “Quality to blame for declining news audiences, study suggests”

I retweeted it, and then commented, “The increased cost for news content, and the decreasing amount of truly unique content, show why people abandon news outlets.”

At first, I thought this applied just to news content. But no, it applies to many things in our life today; however news exemplifies it in a very unique way.

I’ve said before that “The Web democratized content” (along with music). Anyone can be a “journalist” – or at least a published writer, on the Internet today. But that just gets you published. Anyone can take the time to write a book, pay for an on-demand publisher to print a copy, and voila!, they’re a published author. That doesn’t mean anyone will pay money for copies, read them, and recommend them to friends. Same on the Web.

I’m not only a producer of information, I’m also a consumer – and I have to tell you, as I browse the aisles of information that are out there, there’s a lot of digital junk food vying for our attention. There are a handful of news sources that break actual news, and a handful news sources that perform strong analysis. But more often, the Web and Twitter (and hours or days later, television stations and newspapers, respectively), are chock full of a self-aggrandizing punditry, where like the childhood game of “telephone”, non-news begins resonating and echoing, becoming louder and louder until it sounds like news. I’ve seen this happen with news about every major technology company, and recently saw it happen to a family member of a friend.

News feeds on sensationalism. Whether it’s bad news, “exclusive” news (whatever that means in the age of Twitter), an idiotic rumor based upon a leak from a supply chain provider, or worse, rumors based upon rumors, it spreads like gossip. In the end, it’s impossible for anyone to truly stand out, because everyone is stuck in this same rut of repeating the rumor.

So back to my point. Why are news audiences declining? Because conventional news outlets are being beaten to the punch. News outlets have generally shrunk in content and quality, while increasing in price, and throwing in advertising technology that gets in the way of the content and the user’s experience. I’m not sure that content paid for primarily by advertising is sustainable. But I can tell you if every time people visit your site you give them interstitial ads, pop-ups/pop-unders/pop-ins, or other hostile advertising that gets in the way of the content, rather than adding value (yes, that’s possible), you’re going to lose readers over time. Pissing off your reader isn’t a good way to provide unique news in a sustainable way.

News has been democratized and commoditized to the point that if we buy a morning paper in one city, fly to another and grab another paper, we see the same syndicated news, with a thin veneer of geographically relevant content grafted on. Conventional journalism outlets are dying because they are slow, and don’t provide significant value to their consumer given the long wait time. They’re also often laden with ads, with articles that are slow to load (usually due to slow ad engines, ironically), and provide little value outside of news you could have seen breaking on Twitter some time ago if you were watching. News outlets that regurgitate twice-baked news without adding value are doomed to be paved over, parking lots of journalism times past.

This applies outside of journalism too. It’s called the first-mover advantage. Do something first, you can possibly own that market. Follow others, and you have to clearly demonstrate the unique value you provide beyond the first mover – or get buried in the melee of als0-rans vying to also catch up to the first mover.

If you want to be successful in anything, always be first, or always be unique. Those are your two choices. Much like any other job, there’s always someone waiting to fill your shoes if you stop providing unique value.

Feb 13

The machines are coming for your job. Big deal.

This blog post is in response to the TechCrunch piece entitled Get Ready To Lose Your Job.

For my entire life, my father was a physician (until he retired). He had to subscribe to medical journals and take courses to keep his skills up to snuff, but medicine, and his specialty, did not evolve to such a form that his career has been replaced. That said, his specialty (gastroenterology) now has some amazing tools at their disposal that can obviate the need for some procedures or tools. But the point is – he never had to shift jobs, only keep skills up to date.

I recently read the book Punching Out about a steel stamping plant in Detroit being spun down over a year’s time. While the book left a little bit to be desired (still, a good read), the events were what got me thinking. As the author works alongside him, here’s a story from a worker who had been a part of Ford’s assembly line for a long time but had been let go:

 “They built a new assembly line. One day, we went over for a tour of the new line, and they showed me a machine that was doing my job. The line that I was working on was built in 1942, and this was in 1979. They turned the lights out, and the machine was still doing the job. So I said to myself, ‘Now I gotta learn how to build machines.’”

Humans are toolmakers. We find tasks that need repeating, and we find ways to make those tasks more efficient, cheaper, faster, or all of the above. Cotton gins. Threshing machines (or modern day combine harvesters which replaced them). Assembly line. Steel mini-mills. Scripting languages… All of them exist to make repetitive tasks less tedious.

Often when new technology comes along that makes these tedious tasks less cumbersome, the technology is called “disruptive”. Regardless of how disruptive it may actually be in the long run to society overall, when a piece of technology can replace a worker or two… or three.. or more… it becomes a socially significant event. The Swing Riots in the early 1800’s are a good example of technology leading directly to social complications.

However, even technology isn’t permanent. Let me tell you a secret. NOTHING is permanent. Nothing. Technology is ever-changing, ever-evolving, in a perpetual movement forward for better efficiency. As the thresher replaced people, the thresher itself was eventually subsumed by the combine harvester of today, which combined three previous innovations together in one – obviating the need for all three (and likely most manufacturers making them).

Innately, humans become comfortable, almost sedentary, in their ways. We think things won’t change, and the status quo will continue. However, I think Isaac Asimov said it well,

“The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

It’s easy to look at technology like threshing machines or steel stamping machines – which both replaced individual, slow, labor with automation, and see how technology replaces the individual. But the same is true with software.

In my recent Task-Oriented Computing post, I mentioned this as well:

“Rather than making users take hammers to drive in screws, smaller, task-oriented applications can enable them to process workflow that may have been cumbersome before and enable workers to perform other more critical tasks instead.”

Software is a tool. We use that software to make our work more efficient, cheaper, faster, or all of the above. Does that sound familiar? The key value that people do, and always will add to any tool – whether it is a device or a software solution – is the human mind. The article I mentioned early on is similar to other articles we could find in the 1900’s about machines “stealing jobs” from auto workers, textile workers, and more. Yes. Many of the jobs of today will not be jobs for humans in the future. They will be jobs for machines and software. Get used to it. This isn’t a threat – it’s opportunity. Machines and software can free us from the rote tasks of our jobs, if we let them, and if we let ourselves continue to grow and learn throughout our lives. Don’t stand still. You shouldn’t be doing that, even if technology wasn’t coming to get your job.

I ran across this work that Alan Turing wrote  about machines, masters, and servants. As technology continues to accelerate and perform amazing things we would have thought impossible years before, we must not just innovate the technology. All of us – regardless of our role in society – must be constantly reinventing, reinvigorating, and renewing our own role in society. Not content to let our skills and thinking lie dormant, we must push to make a role for ourselves in the ever changing world. Don’t fear the machines. Don’t fear the software. Don’t fear the change. Be a part of it.

Dec 12

When I worked at Microsoft

Few phrases would strike fear into the hearts of my co-workers in Austin faster than “when I worked at Microsoft”. I’ve since learned to keep my stories to myself a bit more. But recently I’ve been contemplating not what I learned at Microsoft, but instead what I’ve learned since.

At Microsoft, I was a horrible writer. I’ll be honest. I hated writing specs. Considering I was a Program Manager (PM), I think that was a bad thing (in hindsight). But I’ve realized since then that it wasn’t the writing that I hated, it was the process. I lucked out and worked with several devs for most of my career in Windows that were willing to work “on the fly” on features as we isolated the customer need. In particular, one dev and I did an immense amount of work on a key deployment feature primarily using his whiteboard and my whiteboard.

In particular, I hated the idea of creating a monolithic document that was often referred to as an “artifact”. Artifacts aren’t things that people use. Artifacts are something that archaeologists discover after great societies fail.

In 2005, while I worked at Winternals, I was offered an opportunity to write an article for TechNet Magazine. One article became 3, 3 articles became a year-long contract, and that was renewed. For many of these pieces, I largely just regurgitated knowledge about how deployment features worked based upon my deep knowledge of them. I built a quickie outline, filled it in with knowledge, made a few edit passes, and handed it off. For better or worse, most of my pieces went to publish with only a quick edit after that.

A few years later, as TechNet changed forms, my contract wasn’t renewed. For a while I wasn’t writing. In 2010 I joined Directions on Microsoft, who I had met in 2001 when describing a feature that I owned to my now colleague Michael.

Directions has a guiding tenet – the idea of uncovering the fundamental news for whatever topic you’re writing about. You have the obligation, as a writer, to describe to your reader what the feature or technology is, how it works, and how it could prove valuable to the reader (or what gotchas it brings). Many of us are ex-Microsoft, and understand the importance of approaching the idea of describing the technology not necessarily in terms of the marketing message, but instead in terms of the actual value customers can expect to find in the technology, or the complications that they may find as well.

The hardest part of becoming an effective analyst at Directions in fact has less to do with understanding how the technology you are covering works, and more with how to adequately, and accurately describe it to the reader, without overwhelming them. In short, like many kinds of sauces or foods, it’s not throwing things together quickly and eating. It’s a matter of finding the important elements, making an outline, reducing it to the important key components, and writing an effective piece. Sometimes this process takes days. sometimes it takes weeks. Sometimes you have to go through the process of letting go after you realize that there is no story there. Then several comprehensive edits later, ideally, you have a piece you can be proud of.

In this video, one of my favorites on YouTube, Apple designer Jony Ive discusses Apple’s approach to design, and in many ways, towards manufacturing. I’ve watched this many times, and what I take away from it is that good technology is complicated, and good designers do their best to buffer the end user from that complexity. Either a good designer absorbs the complexity of the technology and makes the experience approachable for the user, or a bad designer fails, and passes along the complexity of the underlying technology to the user – producing technology that is unpleasant to use, and often largely unusable.

As I read a lot of content on the Web, sometimes it drives me a bit crazy. So many articles – like my old ones at TechNet were at times – aren’t planned well, aren’t edited, ramble on, leave key points unclosed while  wasting time on chaff. All too often I click through to an article – or often a blog post – and abandon it at the 1,000 word mark, when it appears sufficiently clear that the writer lost their way in the woods, and at some point simply said, “screw it, I’m done”, and pushed publish, when they should have either saved it as a draft or just closed their browser.

Earlier tonight, I stated on Twitter that I think many of the things I’ve learned that have made me a better writer today would helped me a better PM at Microsoft. In addition to writing and editing skills, part of this is likely my own maturity, and another part is surely me having the patience to do the best job possible and taking my time to do it – even if it means cutting key work I’ve done, or discarding an idea that is important to me personally. Finally, another part I’ve learned is that it’s okay to write with brevity – as I always wanted to do at Microsoft – as long as you manage to clearly and accurately get the primary points across to the reader – at Microsoft, the developers, testers, user assistance writers, among others. Whether you’re a PM at Microsoft, a writer, or a blogger, I think it’s important to understand who your consumer is, what you’re trying to tell them, and if you’ve successfully transmitted your message, or whether you’ve gotten lost along the way.