Apple vs Samsung: It’s Not Innovation or Choice
September 2nd, 2012 by ravi

The feud between Apple and Samsung reached a milestone this week with a jury delivering a verdict favouring Apple in one major lawsuit. The response from both parties was quick and predictable. Samsung called the verdict a “loss for the American consumer”, while Apple’s Tim Cook heralded it as “an important day … for innovators everywhere”. I am pretty sure they are both exactly wrong.

Here in short are the standard arguments:

On the side of patents and copyright is the claim that without such protections the creators of new technologies and designs will be denied the reward for their work. Knock-offs with zero “innovation” cost will swamp the market, ultimately killing off the innovators.

On the other side is the claim that what has been lost is consumer choice, the selection agent in product evolution. Without the crucible of competition customers lose out in the long run.

I do not think either of them applies. The real issue is that old question — cui bono? — but applied in the opposite sense. Stay with me and we’‘ll get to that, but first a look at the proffered justifications.

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Innovation: Bell Labs vs Google/Facebook
February 26th, 2012 by ravi

The New York Times has a profile of Bell Labs (full disclosure: my home!) by Jon Gertner that I highly recommend (despite the glaring absence of Unix in Gertner’s list of Bell Labs’s greatest) . The conclusion of the piece (emphasis added):

But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

There’s no single best way to innovate. Silicon Valley’s methods have benefited our country well over the course of several decades. And it would be absurd to return to an era of big monopolies. Today’s telecom industries are thriving, and customers likewise have access to a dazzling range of affordable devices and services, which most likely would not have been true had the old phone company remained intact. Though it had custody of the world’s most innovative labs, AT&T introduced new products and services slowly, and rarely cheaply. As Time magazine once put it, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.”

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

The original article: Innovation and the Bell Labs Miracle –

The real Steve Jobs
August 25th, 2011 by ravi

Yesterday, Steve Jobs announced his resignation from Apple. This has prompted an outpouring of touchingly sentimental stories from those who have interacted with the man. John Gruber has been collecting a bunch of them at his blog, from which I have reproduced a few links:

Alongside these personal anecdotes have emerged the usual superlative-laden hagiographies that, however well-intentioned, force Jobs into the standard mould – visionary, innovator, tireless leader, so on. In my opinion this is all wrong, and dangerously wrong. Jobs is interesting because his style flies against these impressive but ill-defined terms. He is unabashedly common-sensical and bullshit-free.

Consider this conversation reported by Rob Walker writing in the New York Times in 2003:

After half an hour of this, my inquiries really did start to fall apart, so I didn’t expect much when I resorted to asking, in so many words, whether he thinks consciously about innovation.

“No,” he said, peevishly. “We consciously think about making great products. We don’t think, ‘Let’s be innovative!'” He waved his hands for effect. “Let’s take a class! Here are the five rules of innovation, let’s put them up all over the company!”

The emperor has no clothes. That is his great value. Resist the urge to gussy him up!

And while we are at it, let’s try to stop writing about him in the past tense.

The Hurd affair and HP’s greatness
August 16th, 2010 by ravi

A recent New York Times article (link at the end of this post) addresses the puzzlement that has occupied many, about the flimsy reasoning behind the dismissal of HP CEO Mark Hurd. The article sheds much necessary light on the larger reasons for this action, but what also caught my attention in the piece was this section:

Charles House, a former longtime H.P. engineer who now runs a research program at Stanford University, openly rejoiced when he heard that Mr. Hurd was leaving. “I think the sexual harassment charge was a total red herring,” Mr. House told me. He didn’t care. “I was delighted,” he said.

Mr. House’s brief against Mr. Hurd went well beyond his outsize compensation and penchant for cost-cutting. As Mr. House saw it — indeed, as many H.P. old-timers saw it — Mr. Hurd was systematically destroying what had always made H.P. great. The way H.P. made its numbers, Mr. House said, was not just cutting any old costs, but by “chopping R.&D.,” which had always been sacred at H.P. The research and development budget used to be 9 percent of revenue, Mr. House told me; now it was closer to 2 percent. “In the personal computer group, it is seven-tenths of 1 percent,” he added. “That’s why H.P. had no response to the iPad.”

I am always bemused when I hear this “HP great, but failing to compete now” argument. My questions arise on two fronts:

HP’s greatness and research/innovation

Without doubt HP is a tremendously successful company. It dominates its field, ranks #1 in mark share for certain products, and can boast a few firsts as well. I have no particular beef against the company (despite HP/UX) and I think they were, as claimed on their web site, ahead of their times in some of the human resources practices, such as offering flex time, employee profit sharing and stock options, and employee health insurance. But what is also noticeable on the HP timeline web site is that what has flowed from HP Labs is a steady stream of evolutionary advances, not breakthrough inventions or innovation.

Compare the HP time line to That of AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. Bell Labs is (or was) the home of seven Nobel Laureates, the birthplace of the transistor, the Unix operating system, the C and C++ programming languages, information theory, the laser, as also significant advances in diverse fields such as photonics, astronomy, cryptography and digital music encoding.

My intent here is not to “diss” HP or HP Labs. HP’s ability to productise its advances, and in turn to target productive fields of research, is made apparent by the same comparison with AT&T (Bell Laboratories), and the current status of each: HP continues to be a successful and healthy company while AT&T and its spin-off Lucent Technologies (now Alcatel-Lucent) are languishing with little to show for their pioneering achievements.

HP’s consumer presence

When HP acquired Compaq, the latter had already lost a good bit of its standing as a top consumer computer systems manufacturer. Nimbler outfits like Dell had stolen the mantle from Compaq, and though HP leads the pack today in US and global desktop and laptop sales, I suspect this leadership is a result of corporate and government contracts, rather than consumer purchases (unfortunately I could not find any reliable data online that breaks down computer sales into consumer and corporate/governmental categories).

News and data are available for other forays by HP into consumer devices, and that news doesn’t speak well. For example, in 2007, HP abandoned the digital camera market, having shrunk from a meagre 7% market share in 2006 to 4% in 2007. HP’s acquisition of Palm and it’s possible entry into the mobile communication space and reentry into the tablet space will provide another data point. But even there, with the dominance of Apple and Google’s Android based systems, we can somewhat safely predict that HP would be lucky to gain a double-digit market share.

In summary, (once again) my wish is not to trash talk about HP. A company that has demonstrated some level of decency towards it’s workers is commendable for that action alone. What I would like is for the media and bloggers to give the rest of us some insights into what they mean when they talk about HP’s greatness and innovation. For, it seems to me, HP’s lack of an answer to the iPad has nothing to do with lack of R&D, but likely more to do with the very strategy that makes HP successful: creating or leveraging relationships that facilitate volume sales. That works for netting multi-million dollar orders from the US Government, but, among other things, being in bed with Microsoft and at their mercy, rules out any chance of their developing something like the iPad (by the way, I think the iPad is over-hyped, but that’s another post). What am I missing?

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