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Laszlo Bock on Building Google’s Culture

Much has been written about what makes Google work so well: their ridiculously profitable advertising business model, the technology behind their search engine and data centers, and the amazing pay and perks they offer.

My experiences investing in and working with startups, however, has taught me that building a great company is usually less about a specific technical or business model innovation than about building a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. To try to get some insight into how Google does things, I picked up Google SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!

Bock describes a Google culture rooted in principles that came from founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they started the company: get the best people to work for you, make them want to stay and contribute, and remove barriers to their creativity. What’s great (to those interested in company building) is that Bock goes on to detail the practices Google has put in place to try to live up to these principles even as their headcount has expanded.

The core of Google’s culture boils down to four basic principles and much of the book is focused on how companies should act if they want to live up to them:

  1. Presume trust: Many of Google’s cultural norms stem from a view that people are well-intentioned and trustworthy. While that may not seem so radical, this manifested at Google as a level of transparency with employees and a bias to say yes to employee suggestions that most companies are uncomfortable with. It raises interesting questions about why companies that say their talent is the most important thing treat them in ways that suggest a lack of trust.
  2. Recruit the best: Many an exec pays lip service to this, but what Google has done is institute policies that run counter to standard recruiting practices to try to actually achieve this at scale: templatized interviews / forms (to make the review process more objective and standardized), hiring decisions made by cross-org committees (to insure a consistently high bar is set), and heavy use of data to track the effectiveness of different interviewers and interview tactics. While there’s room to disagree if these are the best policies (I can imagine hating this as a hiring manager trying to staff up a team quickly), what I admired is that they set a goal (to hire the best at scale) and have actually thought through the recruiting practices they need to do so.
  3. Pay fairly [means pay unequally]: While many executives would agree with the notion that superstar employees can be 2-10x more productive, few companies actually compensate their superstars 2-10x more. While its unclear to me how effective Google is at rewarding superstars, the fact that they’ve tried to align their pay policies with their beliefs on how people perform is another great example of deviating from the norm (this time in terms of compensation) to follow through on their desire to pay fairly.
  4. Be data-driven: Another “in vogue” platitude amongst executives, but one that very few companies live up to, is around being data-driven. In reading Bock’s book, I was constantly drawing parallels between the experimentation, data collection, and analyses his People Operations team carried out and the types of experiments, data collection, and analyses you would expect a consumer internet/mobile company to do with their users. Case in point: Bock’s team experimented with different performance review approaches and even cafeteria food offerings in the same way you would expect Facebook to experiment with different news feed algorithms and notification strategies. It underscores the principle that, if you’re truly data-driven, you don’t just selectively apply it to how you conduct business, you apply it everywhere.

Of course, not every company is Google, and not every company should have the same set of guiding principles or will come to same conclusions. Some of the processes that Google practices are impractical (i.e., experimentation is harder to set up / draw conclusions from with much smaller companies, not all professions have such wide variations in output as to drive such wide variations in pay, etc).

What Bock’s book highlights, though, is that companies should be thoughtful about what sort of cultural principles they want to follow and what policies and actions that translates into if they truly believe them. I’d highly recommend the book!

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Thoughts from Google I/O

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend Google I/O — this time, not just as a fan of the Android platform but representing a developer. Below are some of my key takeaways from the event

  • Google‘s strategic direction – there were three big themes that were emphasized
    • Next Billion – a lot of what Google is doing (like making Google Maps / YouTube work without internet) is around making Chrome/Android/Google Search the platforms of choice for the next billion mobile users — many of whom will come from Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, etc. Its important for us to remember that the US/Western Europe is not the totality of the world and that there’s a big chance that future major innovations and platform will come from elsewhere in the world.
    • Machine Learning – I was blown away (and a little creeped out!) by the machine learning tech they showed: Google Now on Tap (you can hold the home button and Android will figure out what’s on your screen/what you’re listening to and give you relevant info), the incredible photo recognition tech in the new Photos app, as well as innovations Android is making in unlocking your phone when it knows its been in your pocket and not your desk. Every company should be thinking about where machine intelligence can be used to enhance their products.
    • Everything Connected – it reminded me of Microsoft’s heyday: except instead of Windows everywhere, its now Android/Chrome everywhere: Android Wear, Chromecast, Android TV, Android Auto, Brillo/Weave, Cardboard for VR, Nest/Dropcam for the home, things like Jacquard & Soli enabling new user interfaces, etc.
  • Marketing enhancements to Google Play: Google has taken steps to make application developers’ lives easier — more details here: http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/empowering-successful-global-businesses.html, but:
    • I sat through a panel on how Google does personalized recommendations / search on Google Play — long story short: keywords + ratings matter
    • Google will now allow A/B testing of Google Play store listings
    • Google Play console now directly integrates App Install advertising so you can run campaigns on Google Search, AdMob, and YouTube
    • Google Play console will also track how users get to Play Store listing by channel and how many convert to install
  • Android M – a lot of tweaks to the core Android app model for developers to pay attention to
    • Permissions: Android M moves to a very iOS-like model where app permissions aren’t granted when you install the app but when the app first uses them; they’ve also moved to a model where users can go into settings and manually revoke previously granted permissions; all Android developers will need to eventually think about how their apps will work if certain permissions are denied (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/features/runtime-permissions.html)
    • App Links: Android will now let apps handle all links on websites they control by default (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/features/app-linking.html)
    • Doze and App Standby: Applications will now have two additional modes that the OS may enforce — one called Doze that keeps all apps in sleep mode to reduce power drain and Standby where the OS determines an app is “idle” and cuts off network access, syncs, and jobs — apps in both modes can still receive “high priority notifications” (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/behavior-changes.html under Power-Saving Optimizations)
    • Auto Backup: Applications will now backup up to 25MB worth of data to the user’s Google Drive (but won’t count against their quota) once every 24 hours; this can be customized (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/backup/index.html)
    • Fingerprint API, Direct Share, and Voice Interactions: universal fingerprint recognition API, the ability to share specific content with specific favorite users (i.e. send to someone over Facebook Messenger, etc), and a new way to build voice interactions in app (see: http://developer.android.com/preview/api-overview.html, starting from Authentication)
  • Other stuff for developers
    • App InvitesGoogle has built out custom share cards / install flows and deep links to make it easier for users to share apps with their friends: http://googledevelopers.blogspot.com/2015/05/grow-your-app-installs-with-app-invites.html
    • Android Design Library: Google now has libraries to help devs build out Material Design elements — now, you too, can make your own Floating Action Button!: http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/android-design-support-library.html
    • Chrome Custom Tabs: basically lets you embed Chrome in your app with custom styling (rather than having to embed a vanilla webview and do a lot of work styling it), its apparently already out in beta channels for Chrome: https://developer.chrome.com/multidevice/android/customtabs
    • Google Cloud Testing Lab: This was pretty cool (and a product of Google’s acquisition of Appurify). Now, Google will provide two highly useful testing services for Android developers: (more details: https://developers.google.com/cloud-test-lab/)
      • For free/automatically: pound on every button / interface on your app that they can see after launch for 1 min and see how many crashes they can get on a variety of Android devices (which helps given the sheer number of them that exist)
      • Paid: run custom Espresso or Robotium tests on specific devices (so you can get test coverage on a broader range of devices doing a specific set of things)
    • Places API: a lot of talks promoting their new mobile Places APIs (which will let iOS and Android apps have better mapping and place search capability)
    • Google Cloud Messaging: this is basically Google’s push notification delivery engine and they announced support for iOS as well as “Topics” (so devices don’t have to get every notification, just the ones relevant to them): http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-closer-look-at-googleplay-services-75.html
    • Espresso testing framework: this was a ridiculously packed session — but Google has apparently made numerous refinements to the Espresso UI testing framework
  • A lot of cool announcements about new Android Wear functionality (which my Moto 360 is eagerly awaiting)
  • Just cool stuff from ATAP
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Google’s Inbox is Exactly What Email Should Be

intro-product

I was not impressed when I first saw Google’s vague overly-feel-good marketing materials for their new Inbox product. It seemed like a design refresh for email focused on implementing Google’s Material Design aesthetic rather than something that I absolutely needed. But, thanks to an invite from my buddy David, I’ve been able to use Google’s new take on email for about a week and I have to say this is the email product I’ve been waiting for.

What does it do that has gotten me so excited? There are three core pieces of functionality which make Google Inbox a great fit for the productivity-minded Gmail user:

  • Auto-categorization that actually works: Google has taken Gmail’s smart inbox functionality (which can tell personal emails apart from social updates, promotions, and forum posts) and have taken this to a whole different level with Inbox. The new categorization tech not only automatically groups common email types like trips vs bills vs social network updates, but it can, for many types of email, recognize the implied rules for the labels I already have and preserve those (i.e. messages to/from my wife).
  • The ability to snooze/dismiss email: One of Inbox’s most compelling features is a clone of the Dropbox-owned Mailbox app’s snoozing email functionality: moving an email out of your inbox until you’re ready to deal with it (i.e. until later tonight, tomorrow morning, later this week, etc). This feature, thankfully, also extends to the smart categories functionality, which, for instance, lets you snooze all of your promotions-related emails or dismiss all your email receipts in one go.
  • The ability to add todo items/reminders: Inbox also lets you add todo items and reminders directly into the inbox. These todos/reminders are treated as if they were emails — they sit side-by-side with “regular” emails in the interface and, as you probably expected, are also snooze-able (and sync with Google Now’s reminder functionality).

These enhancements let Gmail power users (like myself!) more readily use email as a productivity tool which tracks all the things they need to do (rather than managing a separate email and todo list) across multiple platforms (web, Android, iOS) with functionality built in to make it easier (like auto-bundling related emails and auto-complete as you type out todo items/reminders) as well as being integrated directly into Gmail (so with full support for search and without creating strange new labels/folders the way Mailbox does).

That being said, while the app’s conceptual and usage model are geared for power users, its missing some of the functionality that I (and I’m sure other Gmail power users) have come to depend on such as in-browser push notifications, ability to embed photos in messages, the ability to add things to a bundle/label via keyboard shortcut, support for labs functionality like embedding the calendar widget in the interface or pulling in preview functionality for Yelp/YouTube/Google Maps inline in the email, and the ability to snooze an email/todo (and set the time for the snooze easily) with a keyboard shortcut.

Those small problems aside I’ve taken so much to Inbox that it now pains me to use the regular Gmail interface for my work email account and I can’t wait until Google extends Inbox support for Google Apps accounts. If you have access to an invite,  I would 100% recommend giving it a shot for a while.

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Google Loves to Make Marketers’ Lives Harder

Customer acquisition is oftentimes the key cost for a startup, and hence one of the most important capabilities for a startup to build and a key skillset for a startup to hire for. One reason for that is that Google, while a great tool in many ways for helping companies with customer acquisition, can really make customer acquisition hard to do.

Why? Well, the importance of Google to the internet means its algorithm and policy changes have HUGE impacts on customer acquisition costs and strategies.

Case in point: a little over two years ago, content businesses — like Demand Media which had learned to profit on the difference between the cost of acquiring customers from search engines and the advertisement money they could make on their content — woke up to a sudden shock when Google algorithm changes drastically changed their cost of acquiring web traffic. While this was a conscious effort by Google to improve its search results for its users, the result was like a natural disaster: an unanticipated and massive change in the business environment. Investors dinged Demand Media’s stock price by 50%, Yahoo shuttered its Associated Content business and replaced it with Yahoo Voices, and many of the initial big losers from Google’s algorithm updates continue to lag in search rankings.

Just a few months ago, Google again shook the customer acquisition world by introducing a new tabbed interface in their Gmail web email client. While tabbed interfaces have been around forever, what made Gmail’s special was that these tabs also served to filter email messages so that Facebook/Twitter updates, forum posts, and – drumroll – promotional emails/coupons – weren’t the first thing a user sees when they open up their mail. The result? All those brilliant subject lines and email marketing campaigns that you’ve come up with? There’s a really big chance they got shunted to a tab that the user is predisposed to ignore with impunity. The result?  Companies who rely on email as a customer acquisition channel have to find ways to counteract this — getting users to (1) open up their “Promotions” tab and (2) designate to Gmail that they want those particular promotions to hit the main inbox – or shift to a new way of getting customers to act.

This type of thing is typical in the customer acquisition world: to succeed, you need to not only get really good at today’s modalities of acquiring customers, you also have to be adaptable – and roll with the sudden changes that Google or Facebook or one of any sudden shifts in the digital world can do.

Update at 11AM PST, 8 Oct 2013: As if on cue for my blog post, I received an email from eCommerce jewelry vendor Blue Nile today about moving their promotions into my main email tab 🙂

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Why Comparing Google Drive to Dropbox is Missing the Point

Last week, Google unveiled its long-rumored Google Drive product with great fanfare. While the gaggle of tech journalists/bloggers issued predictable comparisons of Google’s new service with online storage/syncing services like Dropbox, I couldn’t help but think that most of the coverage missed the point on why Google Drive was interesting. Yes, its another consumer-facing cloud storage service – but the really interesting aspect of it is not whether or not it’ll “kill Dropbox/Box.net/iCloud/[insert your favorite consumer cloud service here]”, but the fact that this could be the beginning of a true web “file system”.

I’ve blogged before about the strengths of the web as a software development platform and the extent to which web apps are now practically the same thing as the apps that we run on our computers and phones. But, frankly, one of the biggest things holding back the vision of the web as a full-fledged “operating system” is the lack of a web-centric “file system”. I use the quotes because I’m not referring to the underlying NTFS/ExtX/HFS/etc technology that most people think of when they hear “file system”: I’m referring to basic functionalities that we expect in our operating systems and file systems:

  • a place to reliably create, read, and edit data
  • the ability to search through stored information based on metadata
  • a way to associate data with specific applications and services that can operate on them (i.e. opening Photoshop files in Adobe Photoshop, MP3s in iTunes, etc)
  • a way to let any application with the right permissions and capabilities to act on that data

Now, a skeptic might point out that the HTML5 specification actually has a lot of local storage/file handling capabilities and that services like Dropbox already provide some of this functionality in the form of APIs that third party apps and services can use – but in both cases, the emphasis is first and foremost on local storage – putting stuff onto or syncing with the storage on your physical machine. As long as that’s true, the web won’t be a fully functioning operating system. Web services will routinely have to rely on local storage (which, by the way, reduces the portability of these apps between different machines), and applications will have to be more silo’d as they each need to manage their own storage (whether its stored on their servers or stored locally on a physical device).

What a vision of the web as operating system needs is a cloud-first storage service (where files are meant to reside on the cloud and where local storage is secondary) which is searchable, editable, and supports file type associations and allows web apps and services to have direct access to that data without having to go through a local client device like a computer or a phone/tablet. And, I think we are beginning to see that with Google Drive.

  • The local interface is pretty kludgy: the folder is really just a bunch of bookmark links, emphasizing that this is a web-centric product first and foremost
  • It offers many useful operating system-like functionality (like search and revision history) directly on the web where the files are resident
  • Google Drive greatly emphasizes how files stored on it have associated viewers and can be accessed by a wide range of apps, including some by Google (i.e. attachments on Gmail, opening/editing on Google Docs, and sharing with Google+) and some by third parties like HelloFax, WeVideo, and LucidChart

Whether or not Google succeeds longer-term at turning Google Drive into a true cloud “file system” will depend greatly on their ability to continue to develop the product and manage the potential conflicts involved with providing storage to web application competitors, but suffice to say, I think we’re at what could be the dawn of the transition from web as a software platform to web as an operating system. This is why I feel the companies that should pay more close attention to this development aren’t necessarily the storage/sync providers like Dropbox and Box.net – at least not for now – but companies like Microsoft and Apple which have a very different vision of how the future of computing should look (much more local software/hardware-centric) and who might not be in as good a position if the web-centric view that Google embodies takes off (as I think and hope it will).

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Google Reader Blues

If it hasn’t been clear from posts on this blog or from my huge shared posts activity feed, I am a huge fan of Google Reader. My reliance/use of the RSS reader tool from Google is second only to my use of Gmail. Its my main primary source of information and analysis on the world and, because a group of my close friends are actively sharing and commenting on the service, it is my most important social network.

Yes, that’s right. I’d give up Facebook and Twitter before I’d give up Google Reader.

I’ve always been disappointed by Google’s lack of attention to the product, so you would think that after announcing that they would find a way to better integrate the product with Google+ that I would be jumping for joy.

However, I am not. And, I am not the only one. E. D. Kain from Forbes says it best when he writes:

[A]fter reading Sarah Perez and Austin Frakt and after thinking about just how much I use Google Reader every day, I’m beginning to revise my initial forecast. Stay calm is quickly shifting toward full-bore Panic Mode.

(bolding and underlining from me)

Now, for the record, I can definitely see the value of integrating Google+ with Google Reader well. I think the key to doing that is finding a way to replace the not-really-used-at-all Sparks feature (which seems to have been replaced by a saved searches feature) in Google+ with Google Reader to make it easier to share high quality blog posts/content. So why am I so anxious? Well, looking at the existing products, there are two big things:

  • Google+ is not designed to share posts/content – its designed to share snippets. Yes, there are quite a few folks (i.e. Steve Yegge who made the now-famous-accidentally-public rant about Google’s approach to platforms vs Amazon/Facebook/Apple’s on products) who make very long posts on Google+ using it almost as a mini-blog platform. And, yes, one can share videos and photos on the site. However, what the platform has not proven to be able to share (and is, fundamentally, one of the best uses/features for Google Reader) is a rich site with embedded video, photos, rich text, and links. This blog post that you’re reading for instance? I can’t share this on Google+. All I can share is a text excerpt and an image – that reduces the utility of the service as a reading/sharing/posting platform.
  • Google Reader is not just “another circle” for Google+, it’s a different type of online social behavior. I gave Google props earlier this year for thinking through online social behavior when building their Circles and Hangouts features, but it slipped my mind then that my use of Google Reader was yet another way to do online social interaction that Google+ did not capture. What do I mean by that? Well, when you put friends in a circle, it means you have grouped that set of friends into one category and think of them as similar enough to want to receive their updates/shared items together and to send them updates/shared items, together. Now, this feels more natural to me than the original Facebook concept (where every friend is equal) and Twitter concept (where the idea is to just broadcast everything to everybody), but it misses one dynamic: followers may have different levels of interest in different types of sharing. When I share an article on Google Reader, I want to do it publicly (hence the public share page), but only to people who are interested in what I am reading/thinking. If I wanted to share it with all of my friends, I would’ve long ago integrated Google Reader shares into Facebook and Twitter. On the flip side, whether or not I feel socially close to the people I follow on Google Reader is irrelevant: I follow them on Google Reader because I’m interested in their shares/comments. With Google+, this sort of “public, but only for folks who are interested” sharing and reading mode is not present at all – and it strikes me as worrisome because the idea behind the Google Reader change is to replace its social dynamics with Google+

Now, of course, Google could address these concerns by implementing additional features – and if that were the case, that would be great. But, putting my realist hat on and looking at the tone of the Google Reader blog post and the way that Google+ has been developed, I am skeptical. Or, to sum it up, in the words of Austin Frakt at the Incidental Economist (again bolding/underlining is by me)

I will be entering next week with some trepidation. I’m a big fan of Google and its products, in general. (Love the Droid. Love the Gmail. Etc.) However, today, I’ve never been more frightened of the company. I sure hope they don’t blow this one!

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Why I Favor Google over Apple

image Many of my good friends are big fans of Apple and its products. But not me. This good-natured difference in opinion leads us into never-ending mini-debates over Twitter or in real life over the relative merits of Apple’s products and those of its competitors.

I suspect many of them (respectfully) think I’m crazy. “Why would you want an inferior product?” “Why do you back a company that has all this information about you and follows you everywhere on the internet?”

I figured that one of these days, I should actually respond to them (fears of flamers/attacks on my judgment be damned!).

imageFirst thing’s first. I’ll concede that, at least for now, Apple tends to build better products. Apple has remarkable design and UI sense which I have yet to see matched by another company. Their hardware is of exceptionally high quality, and, as I mentioned before, they are masters at integrating their high-end hardware with their custom-built software to create a very solid user experience. They are also often pioneers in new hardware innovations (e.g., accelerometer, multitouch, “retina display”, etc.).

So, given this, why on earth would I call myself a Google Fanboi (and not an Apple one)? There are a couple of reasons for it, but most of them boil down basically to the nature of Google’s business model which is focused around monetizing use rather than selling a particular piece of content/software/hardware. Google’s dominant source of profit is internet advertising – and they are able to better serve ads (get higher revenue per ad) and able to serve more ads (higher number of ads) by getting more people to use the internet and to use it more. Contrast this with Apple who’s business model is (for the most part) around selling a particular piece of software or hardware – to them, increased use is the justification or rationale for creating (and charging more for) better products. The consequence of this is that the companies focus on different things:

  • image Cheap(er) cost of access – Although Apple technology and design is quite complicated, Apple’s product philosophy is very simple: build the best product “solution” and sell it at a premium. This makes sense given Apple’s business model focus on selling the highest-quality products. But it does not make sense for Google which just wants to see more internet usage. To achieve this, Google does two main things. First, Google offers many services and development platforms for little or no cost. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Search: all free, to name a few. Second, Google actively attacks pockets of control or profitability in the technology space which could impede internet use. Bad browsers reducing the willingness of people to use the internet? Release the very fast Google Chrome browser. Lack of smartphones? Release the now-very-popular Android operating system. Not enough internet-connected TV solutions? Release Google TV. Not enough people on high-speed broadband? Consider building a pilot high-speed fiber optic network for a lucky community. All of these efforts encourage greater Web usage in two ways: (a) they give people more of a reason to use the Web more by providing high-value web services and “complements” to the web (like browsers and OS’s) at no or low cost and (b) forcing other businesses to lower their own prices and/or offer better services. Granted, these moves oftentimes serve other purposes (weakening competitive threats on the horizon and/or providing new sources of revenue) and aren’t always successes (think OpenSocial or Google Buzz), but I think the Google MO (make the web cheaper and better) is better for all end-users than Apple’s.
  • Choice at the expense of quality – Given Apple’s interest in building the best product and charging for it, they’ve tended to make tradeoffs in their design philosophy to improve performance and usability. This has proven to be very effective for them, but it has its drawbacks. If you have followed recent mobile tech news, you’ll know Apple’s policies on mobile application submissions and restrictions on device functionality have not met with universal applause. This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t have the right to do this (clearly they do) or that the tradeoffs they’ve made are bad ones (the number  of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch purchases clearly shows that many people are willing to “live with it”), but it is a philosophical choice. But, this has implications for the ecosystem around Apple versus Google (which favors a different tradeoff). Apple’s philosophy provides great “out of the box” performance, but at the expense of being slower or less able to adopt potential innovations or content due to their own restrictions. image Case in point: a startup called Swype has built a fascinating new way to use soft keyboards on touchscreens, but due to Apple’s App Store not allowing an application that makes such a low-level change, the software is only available on Android phones. Now, this doesn’t preclude Swype from being on the iPhone eventually, but it’s an example where Apple’s approach may impede innovation and consumer choice – something which a recent panel of major mobile game developers expressed concern about — and its my two cents worth that the Google way of doing things is better in the long run.
  • image Platforms vs solutions – Apple’s hallmark is the vertically integrated model, going so far as to have their own semiconductor solution and content store (iTunes). This not only lets them maximize the amount of cash they can pull in from a customer (I don’t just sell you a device, I get a cut of the applications and music you use on it), it also lets them build tightly integrated, high quality product “solution”. Google, however, is not in the business of selling devices and has no interest in one tightly integrated solution: they’d rather get as many people on the internet as possible. So, instead of pursuing the “Jesus phone” approach, they pursue the platform approach, releasing “horizontal” software and services platforms to encourage more companies and more innovators to work with it. With Apple, you only have one supplier and a few product variants. With Google, you enable many suppliers (Samsung, HTC, and Motorola for starters in the high-end Android device world, Sony and Logitech in Google TV) to compete with one another and offer their own variations on hardware, software, services, and silicon. This allows companies like Cisco to create a tablet focused on enterprise needs like the Cius using Android, something which the more restrictive nature of Apple’s development platform makes impossible (unless Apple creates its own), or researchers at the MIT Media lab to create an interesting telemedicine optometry solution. A fair response to this would be that this can lead to platform fragmentation, but whether or not there is a destructive amount of it is an open question. Given Apple’s track record the last time it went solo versus platform (something even Steve Jobs admits they didn’t do so well at), I feel this is a major strength for Google’s model in the long-run.
  • (More) open source/standards – Google is unique in the tech space for the extent of its support for open source and open standards. Now, how they’ve handled it isn’t perfect, but if you take a quick glance at their Google Code page, you can see an impressive number of code snippets and projects which they’ve open sourced and contributed to the community. They’ve even gone so far as to provide free project hosting for open source projects. But, even beyond just giving developers access to useful source code, Google has gone further than most companies in supporting open standards going so far as to provide open access to its WebM video codec which it purchased the rights to for ~$100M to provide a open HTML5 video standard and to make it easy to access your data from a Google service however you choose (i.e., IMAP access to Gmail, open API access to Google Calendar and Google Docs, etc.). This is in keeping with Google’s desire to enable more web development and web use, and is a direct consequence of it not relying on selling individual products. Contrast this with an Apple-like model – the services and software are designed to fuel additional sales. As a result, they are well-designed, high-performance, and neatly integrated with the rest of the package, but are much less likely to be open sourced (with a few notable exceptions) or support easy mobility to other devices/platforms. This doesn’t mean Apple’s business model is wrong, but it leads to a different conclusion, one which I don’t think is as good for the end-user in the long run.

These are, of course, broad sweeping generalizations (and don’t capture all the significant differences or the subtle ones between the two companies). Apple, for instance, is at the forefront of contributors to the open source Webkit project which powers many of the internet’s web browsers and is a pioneer behind the multicore processing standard OpenCL. On the flip side, Google’s openness and privacy policies are definitely far from perfect. But, I think those are exceptions to the “broad strokes” I laid out.

In this case, I believe that, while short-term design strength and solution quality may be the strengths of Apple’s current model, I believe in the long run, Google’s model is better for the end-customer because their model is centered around more usage.

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My Take on Google/Verizon’s Net Neutrality Proposal

If you’ve been following the tech news at all, you’ll know about the great controversy surrounding the joint Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality. Recently, Google came out with a defense of its own actions, and I thought I’d weigh in.

First, I think the community overreacted. There is a lot to not like about Google’s stance, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. There are political limits to what strict net neutrality promoters can achieve. Its a fact of life that the telco providers have deep pockets (part of their having government-granted monopoly status) and stand to gain or lose a great deal from the outcome of net neutrality legislation and thus wield enormous influence over broadband legislation. Its also a fact of life that the path towards net neutrality is more easily served by finding common ground which preserves the most important aspects of net neutrality than it is to fight the telco providers kicking and screaming the whole way. What I mean to say is: we should not criticize Google for dealing with a telco or with making compromises on net neutrality. That’s an unreasonable stance typically held by people who don’t have to actually make policy. With that said, we should criticize Google for making the wrong compromises.
  2. I don’t think Android was the issue here. Many people may disagree with me here, but I don’t believe Android has much direct impact to Google’s bottom line. From my perspective, Google’s commitment to Android is about two things: (a) preventing Apple from dominating the smartphone market (and potentially the mobile ad market) by empowering a bunch of phone manufacturers to provide devices of comparable (or better) quality and (b) forcing all mobile phone platforms to have decent-enough web surfing/app-running capability (by providing a free alternative which did) so that Google can provide its services effectively on those platforms and serve more ads. If anything, Google’s incentives here are better aligned with net neutrality than most companies: it benefits the most if there are more people using the web, and the best way to push that is to encourage greater content diversity. While Google TV may change Android into a true profit center, it wouldn’t be for several years, and so I think it’d be a stretch to say it is a big enough deal to significantly impact Google’s political policy moves. I can buy the argument that Google pushed a deal with Verizon because they have a closer relationship via Android, but I think suggesting that Google subverted net neutrality as a concession to Verizon on Android is taking it too far.
  3. I think Google did a good job of emphasizing transparency. The proposal emphasizes that telcos need to be held to higher standards of transparency, something which is sorely lacking today, and something which we definitely want to and need to see in the future.

With that said, though, there are definitely things to criticize Google’s agreement on:

  1. Wireless: I can sympathize with the argument that wireless is different from wired networks and could require more aggressive traffic management. I even went so far as to call that out the last time I talked about this. But, given the importance of wireless broadband in the future, it doesn’t make any sense to exclude explicit protections around neutrality for wireless. The arguments around competition and early development strike me as naive at best and Verizon PR at worst – whatever provisions exist to protect neutrality for wired networks should be applied in the wireless space. Competition and the development of more open gardens make it possible to compromise, but not necessarily throw caution to the wind.
  2. Wording weirdness: I’m concerned that the proposal contains phrasings which seem to give avenues for telcos to back out of neutrality like “prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted” without clearly explaining what are reasonable grounds for rebuttal. Even parts of the compromise which I accept as valid (i.e., letting telcos do basic network quality of service management, prioritize government/emergency traffic, fight off malware/piracy, etc.) were framed in terms of what telco’s were permitted to do, but not without clearly laid out restrictions (i.e., network service quality management must be subject to FCC review). For a document meant to safeguard neutrality, it sure seems to go out of its way to stipulate workarounds…
  3. “Additional online services”: I understand (and agree with) the intent – carriers may want to provide special services which they want to treat differently to meet their partners’/customers’ needs like a special gaming service or secure money transfer. The language, however, is strange and not imminently clear to me that there aren’t “back doors” for the telcos to use to circumvent neutrality restrictions.

Truthfully, I think most of the document rings true as a practical compromise between the interests and needs of telcos (who would bear the brunt of the costs and should be incentivized to improve network quality and provide meaningful services and integration) and the interests of the public. But, I would ask Google or whatever legislator/FCC member who has a voice on this to do two things:

  • Not compromise on content neutrality on any medium. The value of the internet as a medium and as a platform of innovation comes from the ability of people to access all sorts of applications and content without that access being discriminated against by the network operator. Not sticking to that is risking slower innovation and choking off a valuable source of commentary/opinions, especially in a setup where large local players hold enormous market power because of their government-granted monopoly status.
  • Create clear (but flexible enough to be future-proof) guidelines for acceptable behavior with clear adjudication and clear punishments. No squirrely word weirdness. No “back door” language. You don’t need to browbeat the telco’s, but you don’t need to coddle them either.
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My Google Voice story

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The power of connectivity:

  • Today, a partner at the firm I work at wanted to call me, not realizing I was on a plane
  • He leaves me a voice message on my phone which includes a cell phone number for me to reach him at
  • Thankfully, I’m on a flight with WiFi
  • Also, I have Google Voice which not only gives me an online control panel to access all my voicemail, but also transcribes the message, and forwards it to my email (technology #2)
  • Because I have Google Voice, I can also read and send text messages as long as I have an internet connection, so I shoot his cell number a text message telling him when I land
  • I added his cell phone number to my list of Google contacts
  • When I land, Google Sync adds the partner’s new contact information to my Blackberry contacts
  • I used the Google Voice app on my Blackberry to shoot my partner a call

So I get to help the partner out without breaking a sweat :-).

(Image credit – Google Voice logo)

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Google Reader Analytics

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion my love for Google Reader. And here’s another reason to throw into the mix: analytics. While this is a feature I don’t use very often, it’s nevertheless very interesting to look at (translation: I spent an hour looking at it, and feel like if I don’t blog about it, then it was a waste of an hour). You can access it by clicking on the “Trends” link in the Google Reader navigation box, or by typing “g” and then “[shift] t”.

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The trends feature gives you a snapshot of two things: (1) your Google Reader browsing habits and (2) details on the blogs and RSS feeds that you subscribe to.

There is a block dedicated to showing how many items you read on a daily basis (I apparently read most of my posts around noon-time with an odd spike around 3-4 PM, and the number of posts I read on a typical weekend is less than half that I would read on a typical weekday):

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The analytics also gives me an analysis of which feeds I read the most (I had no idea I read that much VentureBeat):

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As well as an analysis of how often certain feeds update, as well as which of my feeds are the most “obscure” (as measured by how few Google Reader subscribers each feed has):

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So, who cares? Good question. In terms of how I’ve used the feature, I’ve used it to cull subscriptions from my list — by singling out feeds which updated too frequently but which didn’t have consistently high quality content or by singling out feeds which I never read — and also to encourage me to post encouragements to the more “obscure” blogs that I follow, so as to encourage them to keep posting.

But, really, it’s just cool.

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Google for Blackberry Gets Better

blackberrygoogle

Google has recently overhauled the two applications I use on my Blackberry the most (Gmail and Google Maps) and introduced a new useful one (Google Mobile Updater) as well as made a few interface changes to the Blackberry Google Talk applet.

The new Gmail upgrade is the least polished of the overhauls. It feels a little more sluggish, although, thankfully, they’ve now included new bandwidth status messages to at least give you a hint of what’s going on. It also adds new features such as:

  • new keyboard shortcuts
  • contacts interface which allows you to search through your Gmail contacts, call those you have listed phone numbers for
  • secure connection — you now have the option to use a secure connection for all your Gmail interactions
  • drafts are something that I always thought were a no-brainer; unfortunately, these drafts don’t show up in your Gmail draft folder and you can only have one at a time
  • notifications are something which make the Gmail update much more useful; before, when new messages were received there was no way for me to know when or how many. New mail messages in my work inbox would result in my Blackberry’s LED flashing, a vibration or tone (depending on what mode I set the device at), and a change in the inbox icon revealing that there were new messages. Gmail’s new applet has finally fixed this allowing one to customize exactly how Gmail will notify your Blackberry that new messages have arrived– by icon, by LED, by tone/vibration, etc.

Much more useful is the Google Maps upgrade which now includes a new feature called “My Location” for those of us too poor to pay for GPS service and a built-in GPS device in our phone (and who can’t stand to re-charge our mobile phone devices super-often as the GPS service drains your battery like crazy). My Location is a feature which allows Google Maps to estimate your location to within ~2000 ft radius (highlighted by a light blue circle surrounding the blue dot in the interface) by locating the cell phone tower that you are closest to. While this doesn’t let you pinpoint your precise location, it makes the app much more useful. Case in point: on my way to our office’s Community Impact Day, I got lost, and instead of having to find some clunky means to estimate my location in Google Map’s interface, I simply used the My Location feature to give me an estimate of where I was so that I could quickly see the local streets. The video below summarizes:

Not particularly useful, but visually more interesting is the Blackberry Google Talk application updating to allow for Google Talk icons to show up, and a restructuring of the menu to be a little more usable. Alas, neither the rarely-updated Google Talk desktop application or the Blackberry Google Talk application seem to be able to interface with AIM the way the Gmail client does.

Google also very recently introduced the Google Mobile Updater which now provides one central location from which to install and update Google software (except for the Google Talk applet which appears to be maintained by RIM/Blackberry rather than by Google). This is currently only for Blackberry devices and, taking a page from the new Gmail applet’s icon, also informs the device user of updates and new products by change of icon.

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Google Reader Upgrades

My favorite feed reader just got three long overdue updates:

  1. It can now count to 1000. Back before this Google Reader update (during the wild, young days of the internet), on days when I couldn’t check Google Reader, the unread post count would build up rather quickly. However, instead of being told precisely how many blog posts I had, Google would only tell me that I had “100+” unread posts. Not particularly informative for a company that prides itself on being the organizer of the world’s information. Today, it can go to 1000. I have yet to reach the point where I have that many posts unread, but at this rate, I think in another year or two, Google may update the reader so that it can count to 10,000. But right now, our technology just can’t handle numbers that big 🙂
  2. You can use “back” and “forward”. Given that Google Reader is on a webpage, you might expect that the back and forward arrows on your toolbar should work like they do on a regular webpage. But, Google Reader is no ordinary webpage: it’s an AJAX application, which means that movement from page to page is not so clear cut. Implementing “forward” and “back” has actually been a challenge for a lot of online Web developers who create AJAX applications, so it’s very nice (and quite a feat for some hapless programmer who probably had to do a lot of unappreciated behind-the-scene work) that they were able to implement this.
  3. Search. Why a company renowned for search expertise create a product without search is beyond me, but its great that Google has finally gotten around to implementing it in Google Reader, allowing me to dig through every post I’ve ever read.
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Google Reader

I use a lot of Google products/services.Not all of them are equally worthwhile, to be frank. But, there are several that I use regularly. One which many of you are already aware of is my Blogger account, which, yes, is now owned by Google (what better way to search people’s blogs than to start a blog service?).

One that I’ve been particularly impressed with is Google Reader. It, like all other google services, requires a google account (but lets face it, how many of you DON’T have one?). Up until recently, I’ve been using Sage, the RSS reader extension for Firefox to aggregate my RSS feeds. One of the reasons that I really liked Sage was that it used my Firefox browser history to point out which feed items I’ve already read (ie if I visited Jane’s LJ, Sage would know, and it wouldn’t tell me that Jane had a new post that I hadn’t seen before). The problem with that, of course, is that if I visit Jane’s LJ while I was waiting for my next class at the computer lab and I read her latest post about wine glasses, then my Sage extension at home wouldn’t know, because — well, its at home.

Enter Google Reader. It is, like Sage, a RSS feed aggregator. It is also, like my.yahoo and livejournal friends page, completely online. But, it has a few distinguishing features. Not only does it aggregate feeds for me, so that I can read the latest posts on Jane’s LJ and Greg Mankiw’s blog, but unlike my.yahoo and Sage, it does not separate them into separate lists or groups of articles, but groups them all together in one big list for me to read. Moreover, it also notes which posts I’ve already read and since its online, it means that the stuff I read when away from my laptop is still marked as read!

You can also attach tags/labels to different feeds and even different posts. For instance, I put the Sinfest, Dilbert, and PhD Comics feeds under a label called “humor” and, if all I want to do is look at humorous stuff, I use Google Reader to show me only all feeds tagged “humor”.

Google Reader also lets you publicize your feeds. If anyone’s interested, I can give the feed URLs for some of my tags so that, if you wanted, you could be reading the same stuff I’m reading when I’m on break. On the sidebar of this site, for example, is a list of articles that I’ve found and clipped as “noteworthy”.

The thing I like the most about Google Reader’s interface, however, is the keyboard shortcuts. I’m not really a big mouse guy — blame my old HP laptop for having mouse buttons which didn’t work properly, so its good to be able to navigate the interface without having to use the mouse (even though I’m now a proud owner of a VAIO with functioning mousepad). On any article that I find to be interesting, I hit “L” and I can label it as “noteworthy”. If I want to read a specific feed, I hit “g” and then “u” and it takes me to a menu of the feeds that I subscribe to, and I can then choose it. If I want to read a specific label, I hit “g” and then “l” and then I get to a menu of labels that I’ve defined. On the main interface, I can move forward and backwards through any list I’m reading by hitting “j” or “k”, and if I want view the original website where the article came from, I only have to hit “v”. And, the interface is pretty mouse-intuitive as well (scrolling on your mousewheel does what you would expect it to), for those of you who are more into the mouse thing.

About the only complaint I have is that there is no way (at least not yet) to search all the feeds that I have read for stuff. I can only search for new feeds.

Anyways, if you started getting into the whole blogosphere/feed thing, I’d definitely recommend Google Reader as a way to keep track of things. And, if someone from Google is reading this, I’d like to get paid commission :-).

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How to Regulate Big Tech

There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about proactively regulating — and maybe even breaking up — the “Big Tech” companies.

Full disclosure: this post discusses regulating large tech companies. I own shares in several of these both directly (in the case of Facebook and Microsoft) and indirectly (through ETFs that own stakes in large companies)

(Image Credit: MIT Sloan)

Like many, I have become increasingly uneasy over the fact that a small handful of companies, with few credible competitors, have amassed so much power over our personal data and what information we see. As a startup investor and former product executive at a social media startup, I can especially sympathize with concerns that these large tech companies have created an unfair playing field for smaller companies.

At the same time, though, I’m mindful of all the benefits that the tech industry — including the “tech giants” — have brought: amazing products and services, broader and cheaper access to markets and information, and a tremendous wave of job and wealth creation vital to may local economies. For that reason, despite my concerns of “big tech”‘s growing power, I am wary of reaching for “quick fixes” that might change that.

As a result, I’ve been disappointed that much of the discussion has centered on knee-jerk proposals like imposing blanket stringent privacy regulations and forcefully breaking up large tech companies. These are policies which I fear are not only self-defeating but will potentially put into jeopardy the benefits of having a flourishing tech industry.

The Challenges with Regulating Tech

Technology is hard to regulate. The ability of software developers to collaborate and build on each other’s innovations means the tech industry moves far faster than standard regulatory / legislative cycles. As a result, many of the key laws on the books today that apply to tech date back decades — before Facebook or the iPhone even existed, making it important to remember that even well-intentioned laws and regulations governing tech can cement in place rules which don’t keep up when the companies and the social & technological forces involved change.

Another factor which complicates tech policy is that the traditional “big is bad” mentality ignores the benefits to having large platforms. While Amazon’s growth has hurt many brick & mortar retailers and eCommerce competitors, its extensive reach and infrastructure enabled businesses like Anker and Instant Pot to get to market in a way which would’ve been virtually impossible before. While the dominance of Google’s Android platform in smartphones raised concerns from European regulators, its hard to argue that the companies which built millions of mobile apps and tens of thousands of different types of devices running on Android would have found it much more difficult to build their businesses without such a unified software platform. Policy aimed at “Big Tech” should be wary of dismantling the platforms that so many current and future businesses rely on.

Its also important to remember that poorly crafted regulation in tech can be self-defeating. The most effective way to deal with the excesses of “Big Tech”, historically, has been creating opportunities for new market entrants. After all, many tech companies previously thought to be dominant (like Nokia, IBM, and Microsoft) lost their positions, not because of regulation or antitrust, but because new technology paradigms (i.e. smartphones, cloud), business models (i.e. subscription software, ad-sponsored), and market entrants (i.e. Google, Amazon) had the opportunity to flourish. Because rules (i.e. Article 13/GDPR) aimed at big tech companies generally fall hardest on small companies (who are least able to afford the infrastructure / people to manage it), its important to keep in mind how solutions for “Big Tech” problems affect smaller companies and new concepts as well.

Framework for Regulating “Big Tech”

If only it were so easy… (Image credit: XKCD)

To be 100% clear, I’m not saying that the tech industry and big platforms should be given a pass on rules and regulation. If anything, I believe that laws and regulation play a vital role in creating flourishing markets.

But, instead of treating “Big Tech” as just a problem to kill, I think we’d be better served by laws / regulations that recognize the limits of regulation on tech and, instead, focus on making sure emerging companies / technologies can compete with the tech giants on a level playing field. To that end, I hope to see more ideas that embrace the following four pillars:

I. Tiering regulation based on size of the company

Regulations on tech companies should be tiered based on size with the most stringent rules falling on the largest companies. Size should include traditional metrics like revenue but also, in this age of marketplace platforms and freemium/ad-sponsored business models, account for the number of users (i.e. Monthly Active Users) and third party partners.

In this way, the companies with the greatest potential for harm and the greatest ability to bear the costs face the brunt of regulation, leaving smaller companies & startups with greater flexibility to innovate and iterate.

II. Championing data portability

One of the reasons it’s so difficult for competitors to challenge the tech giants is the user lock-in that comes from their massive data advantage. After all, how does a rival social network compete when a user’s photos and contacts are locked away inside Facebook?

While Facebook (and, to their credit, some of the other tech giants) does offer ways to export user data and to delete user data from their systems, these tend to be unwieldy, manual processes that make it difficult for a user to bring their data to a competing service. Requiring the largest tech platforms to make this functionality easier to use (i.e., letting others import your contact list and photos with the ease in which you can login to many apps today using Facebook) would give users the ability to hold tech companies accountable for bad behavior or not innovating (by being able to walk away) and fosters competition by letting new companies compete not on data lock-in but on features and business model.

III. Preventing platforms from playing unfairly

3rd party platform participants (i.e., websites listed on Google, Android/iOS apps like Spotify, sellers on Amazon) are understandably nervous when the platform owners compete with their own offerings (i.e., Google Places, Apple Music, Amazon first party sales). As a result, some have even called for banning platform owners from offering their own products and services.

I believe that is an overreaction. Platform owners offering attractive products and services (i.e., Google offering turn-by-turn navigation on Android phones) can be a great thing for users (after all, most prominent platforms started by providing compelling first-party offerings) and for 3rd party participants if these offerings improve the attractiveness of the platform overall.

What is hard to justify is when platform owners stack the deck in their favor using anti-competitive moves such as banning or reducing the visibility of competitors, crippling third party offerings, making excessive demands on 3rd parties, etc. Its these sorts of actions by the largest tech platforms that pose a risk to consumer choice and competition and should face regulatory scrutiny. Not just the fact that a large platform exists or that the platform owner chooses to participate in it.

IV. Modernizing how anti-trust thinks about defensive acquisitions

The rise of the tech giants has led to many calls to unwind some of the pivotal mergers and acquisitions in the space. As much as I believe that anti-trust regulators made the wrong calls on some of these transactions, I am not convinced, beyond just wanting to punish “Big Tech” for being big, that the Pandora’s Box of legal and financial issues (for the participants, employees, users, and for the tech industry more broadly) that would be opened would be worthwhile relative to pursuing other paths to regulate bad behavior directly.

That being said, its become clear that anti-trust needs to move beyond narrow revenue share and pricing-based definitions of anti-competitiveness (which do not always apply to freemium/ad-sponsored business models). Anti-trust prosecutors and regulators need to become much more thoughtful and assertive around how some acquisitions are done simply to avoid competition (i.e., Google’s acquisition of Waze and Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp are two examples of landmark acquisitions which probably should have been evaluated more closely).

Wrap-Up

(Image Credit: OECD Forum Network)

This is hardly a complete set of rules and policies needed to approach growing concerns about “Big Tech”. Even within this framework, there are many details (i.e., who the specific regulators are, what specific auditing powers they have, the details of their mandate, the specific thresholds and number of tiers to be set, whether pre-installing an app counts as unfair, etc.) that need to be defined which could make or break the effort. But, I believe this is a good set of principles that balances both the need to foster a tech industry that will continue to grow and drive innovation as well as the need to respond to growing concerns about “Big Tech”.

Special thanks to Derek Yang and Anthony Phan for reading earlier versions and giving me helpful feedback!

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Migrating WordPress to AWS Lightsail and Going with Let’s Encrypt!

As internet technology evolves, so does this website 😎.

I recently made two big changes to the backend of this website to keep up with the times as internet technology continues to evolve.

First, I migrated from my previous web hosting arrangements at WebFaction to Amazon Web Services’s new Lightsail offering. I have greatly enjoyed WebFaction’s super simple interface and fantastic documentation which seemed tailored to amateur coders like myself (having enough coding and customization chops to do some cool projects but not a lot of confidence or experience in dealing with the innards of a server). But, the value for money that AWS Lightsail offers ($3.50/month for Linux VPS including static IP vs. the $10/month I would need to pay to eventually renew my current setup) ultimately proved too compelling to ignore (and for a simple personal site, I didn’t need the extra storage or memory). This coupled with the deterioration in service quality I have been experiencing with WebFaction (many more downtime email alerts from WordPress’s Jetpack plugin and the general lagginess in the WordPress administrative panel) and the chance to learn more about the world’s pre-eminent cloud services provider made this an easy decision.

Given how Google Chrome now (correctly) marks all websites which don’t use HTTPS/SSL as insecure and Let’s Encrypt has been offering SSL certificates for free for several years, the second big change I made was to embrace HTTPS to partially modernize my website and make it at least not completely insecure 😅🤓. Along the way, I also tweaked my URLs so that all my respective subdomains and domain variants would ultimately point to https://benjamintseng.com/.

For anyone who is also interested in migrating an existing WordPress deployment on another host to AWS Lightsail and turning on HTTPS/SSL, here are the steps I followed (gleamed from some online research and a bit of trial & error). Its not as straightforward as some other setups, but its very do-able if you are willing to do a little bit of work in the AWS console:

  • Follow the (fairly straightforward) instructions in the AWS Lightsail tutorial around setting up a clean WordPress deployment. I would skip sub-step 3 of step 6 (directing your DNS records to point to the Lightsail nameservers) until later (when you’re sure the transfer has worked so your domain continues to point to a functioning WordPress deployment).
  • Unless you are currently not hosting any custom content (no images, no videos, no Javascript files, etc) on your WordPress deployment, I would ignore the WordPress migration tutorial at the AWS Lightsail website (which won’t show you how to transfer this custom content over) in favor of this Bitnami how-to-guide (Bitnami provides the WordPress server image that Lightsail uses for its WordPress instance) which takes advantage of the fact that the Bitnami WordPress includes the All-in-One WP Migration plugin which, for free, can do single file backups of your WordPress site up to 512 MB (larger sites will need to pay for the premium version of the plugin).
    • If, like me, you have other content statically hosted on your site outside of WordPress, I’d recommend storing it in WordPress as part of the Media Library which has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the past few years. Its where I now store the files associated with my Projects
    • Note: if, like me, you are using Jetpack’s site accelerator to cache your images/static file assets, don’t worry if upon visiting your site some of the images appear broken. Jetpack relies on the URL of the asset to load correctly. This should get resolved once you point your DNS records accordingly (literally the next step) and any other issues should go away after you mop up any remaining references to the wrong URLs in your database (see the bullet below where I reference the Better Search Replace plugin).
  • If you followed my advice above, now would be the time to change your DNS records to point to the Lightsail nameservers (sub-step 3 of step 6 of the AWS Lightsail WordPress tutorial) — wait a few hours to make sure the DNS settings have propagated and then test out your domain and make sure it points to a page with the Bitnami banner in the lower right (sign that you’re using the Bitnami server image, see below)
Bitnami banner
The Bitnami banner in the lower-right corner of the page you should see if your DNS propagated correctly and your Lightsail instance is up and running
  • To remove that ugly banner, follow the instructions in this tutorial (use the AWS Lightsail panel to get to the SSH server console for your instance and, assuming you followed the above instructions, follow the instructions for Apache)
  • Assuming your webpage and domain all work (preferably without any weird uptime or downtime issues), you can proceed with this tutorial to provision a Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate for your instance. It can be a bit tricky as it entails spending a lot of time in the SSH server console (which you can get to from the AWS Lightsail panel) and tweaking settings in the AWS Lightsail DNS Zone manager, but the tutorial does a good job of walking you through all of it.
    • I would strongly encourage you to wait to make sure all the DNS settings have propagated and that your instance is not having any strange downtime (as mine did when I first tried this) as if you have trouble connecting to your page, it won’t be immediately clear what is to blame and you won’t be able to take reactive measures.
  • I used the plugin Better Search Replace to replace all references to intermediate domains (i.e. the IP addresses for your Lightsail instance that may have stuck around after the initial step in Step 1) or the non-HTTPS domains (i.e. http://yourdomain.com or http://www.yourdomain.com) with your new HTTPS domain in the MySQL databases that power your WordPress deployment (if in doubt, just select the wp_posts table). You can also take this opportunity to direct all your yourdomain.com traffic to www.yourdomain.com (or vice versa). You can also do this directly in MySQL but the plugin allows you to do this across multiple tables very easily and allows you to do a “dry run” first where it finds and counts all the times it will make a change before you actually execute it.
  • If you want to redirect all the traffic to www.yourdomain.com to yourdomain.com, you have two options. If your domain registrar is forward thinking and does simple redirects for you like Namecheap does, that is probably the easiest path. That is sadly not the path I took because I transferred my domain over to AWS’s Route 53 which is not so enlightened. If you also did the same thing / have a domain registrar that is not so forward thinking, you can tweak the Apache server settings to achieve the same effect. To do this, go into the SSH server console for your Lightsail instance and:
    • Run cd ~/apps/wordpress/conf
    • To make a backup which you can restore (if you screw things up) run mv httpd-app.conf httpd-app.conf.old
    • I’m going to use the Nano editor because its the easiest for a beginner (but feel free to use vi or emacs if you prefer), but run nano httpd-app.conf
    • Use your cursor and find the line that says RewriteEngine On that is just above the line that says #RewriteBase /wordpress/
    • Enter the following lines
      • # begin www to non-www
      • RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www\.(.*)$ [NC]
      • RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://%1/$1 [R=permanent,L]
      • # end www to non-www
      • The first and last line are just comments so that you can go back and remind yourself of what you did and where. The middle two lines are where the server recognizes incoming URL requests and redirects them accordingly
      • With any luck, your file will look like the image below — hit ctrl+X to exit, and hit ‘Y’ when prompted (“to save modified buffer”) to save your work
    • Run sudo /opt/bitnami/ctlscript.sh restart to restart your server and test out the domain in a browser to make sure everything works
      • If things go bad, run mv httpd-app.conf.old httpd-app.conf and then restart everything by running sudo /opt/bitnami/ctlscript.sh restart
What httpd-app.conf should look like in your Lightsail instance SSH console after the edits

I’ve only been using AWS Lightsail for a few days, but my server already feels much more responsive. It’s also nice to go to my website and not see “not secure” in my browser address bar (its also apparently an SEO bump for most search engines). Its also great to know that Lightsail is integrated deeply into AWS which makes the additional features and capabilities that have made AWS the industry leader (i.e. load balancers, CloudFront as CDN, scaling up instance resources, using S3 as a datastore, or even ultimately upgrading to full-fledged EC2 instances) are readily available.

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Henry Ford

This weekend, I paid a visit to The Henry Ford. Its a combination of multiple venues — a museum, an outdoor “innovation village”, a Ford Motors factory tour — which collectively celebrate America’s rich history of innovation and manufacturing and, in particular, the legacy of Henry Ford and the Ford Motors company he built.

While ambitious super-CEOs like Larry Page (Google), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) with their tentacles in everything sometimes seem like a modern phenomena, The Henry Ford shows that they are just a modern-day reincarnations of the super-CEOs of yesteryear. Except, instead of pioneering software at scale, electric vehicles, and AI assistants, Ford was instrumental in the creation of assembly line mass production, the automotive industry (Ford developed the first car that the middle class could actually afford), the aerospace industry (Ford helped develop some of America’s first successful passenger planes), the forty hour workweek, and even the charcoal briquet (part of a drive to figure out what to do with the lumber waste that came from procuring the wood needed to build Model T’s).

In the same way that the tech giants of today pursue “moonshots” like drone delivery and self-driving cars, Ford pushed the frontier with its own moonshots: creating cars out of bioplastic, developing biofuels, and even an early collaboration with Thomas Edison to build an electric car.

It was a striking parallel, and also an instructional one for any company that believes they can stay on top forever: despite the moonshots and the technology advantages, new technologies, market forces, and global shifts come one after the other and yesterday’s Ford (eventually) gets supplanted by tomorrow’s Tesla.

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Snap Inc by the Numbers

If you follow the tech industry at all, you will have heard that consumer app darling Snap Inc. (makers of the app Snapchat) has filed to go public. The ensuing Form S-1 that has recently been made available has left tech-finance nerds like yours truly drooling over the until-recently-super-secretive numbers behind their business.

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Oddly apt banner (Image Credit: Business Insider)

Much of the commentary in the press to date has been about how unprofitable the company is (having lost over $500M in 2016 alone). I have been unimpressed with that line of thinking — as what the bottom line is in a given year is hardly the right measure for assessing a young, high-growth company.

While full-time Wall Street analysts will pour over the figures and comparables in much greater detail than I can, I decided to take a quick peek at the numbers to gauge for myself how the business is doing as a growth investment, looking at:

  • What does the growth story look like for the business?
  • Do the unit economics allow for a path to profitability?

What does the growth story look like for the business?

As I noted before, consumer media businesses like Snap have two options available to grow: (1) increase the number of users / amount of time spent and/or (2) better monetize users over time

A quick peek at the DAU (Daily Active Users) counts of Snap reveal that path (1) is troubled for them. Using Facebook as a comparable (and using the midpoint of Facebook’s quarter-end DAU counts to line up with Snap’s average DAU over a quarter) reveals not only that Snap’s DAU numbers aren’t growing so much, their growth outside of North America (where they should have more room to grow) isn’t doing that great either (which is especially alarming as the S-1 admits Q4 is usually seasonally high for them).

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Last 3 Quarters of DAU growth, by region

A quick look at the data also reveals why Facebook prioritizes Android development and low-bandwidth-friendly experiences — international remains an area of rapid growth which is especially astonishing considering how over 1 billion Facebook users are from outside of North America. This contrasts with Snap which, in addition to needing a huge amount of bandwidth (as a photo and video intensive platform) also (as they admitted in their S-1) de-emphasizes Android development. Couple that with Snap’s core demographic (read: old people can’t figure out how to use the app), reveals a challenge to where quick short-term user growth can come from.

As a result, Snap’s growth in the near term will have to be driven more by path (2). Here, there is a lot more good news. Snap’s quarterly revenue per user more than doubled over the last 3 quarters to $1.029/DAU. While its a long way off from Facebook’s whopping $7.323/DAU (and over $25 if you’re just looking at North American users), it suggests that there is plenty of opportunity for Snap to increase monetization, especially overseas where its currently able to only monetize about 1/10 as effectively as they are in North America (compared to Facebook which is able to do so 1/5 to 1/6 of North America depending on the quarter).

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2016 and 2015 Q2-Q4 Quarterly Revenue per DAU, by region

Considering Snap has just started with its advertising business and has already convinced major advertisers to build custom content that isn’t readily reusable on other platforms and Snap’s low revenue per user compared even to Facebook’s overseas numbers, I think its a relatively safe bet that there is a lot of potential for the number to go up.

Do the unit economics allow for a path to profitability?

While most folks have been (rightfully) stunned by the (staggering) amount of money Snap lost in 2016, to me the more pertinent question (considering the over $1 billion Snap still has in its coffers to weather losses) is whether or not there is a path to sustainable unit economics. Or, put more simply, can Snap grow its way out of unprofitability?

Because neither Facebook nor Snap provide regional breakdowns of their cost structure, I’ve focused on global unit economics, summarized below:

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2016 and 2015 Q2-Q4 Quarterly Financials per DAU

What’s astonishing here is that neither Snap nor Facebook seem to be gaining much from scale. Not only are their costs of sales per user (cost of hosting infrastructure and advertising infrastructure) increasing each quarter, but the operating expenses per user (what they spend on R&D, sales & marketing, and overhead — so not directly tied to any particular user or dollar of revenue) don’t seem to be shrinking either. In fact, Facebook’s is over twice as large as Snap’s — suggesting that its not just a simple question of Snap growing a bit further to begin to experience returns to scale here.

What makes the Facebook economic machine go, though, is despite the increase in costs per user, their revenue per user grows even faster. The result is profit per user is growing quarter to quarter! In fact, on a per user basis, Q4 2016 operating profit exceeded Q2 2015 gross profit (revenue less cost of sales, so not counting operating expenses)! No wonder Facebook’s stock price has been on a tear!

While Snap has also been growing its revenue per user faster than its cost of sales (turning a gross profit per user in Q4 2016 for the first time), the overall trendlines aren’t great, as illustrated by the fact that its operating profit per user has gotten steadily worse over the last 3 quarters. The rapid growth in Snap’s costs per user and the fact that Facebook’s costs are larger and still growing suggests that there are no simple scale-based reasons that Snap will achieve profitability on a per user basis. As a result, the only path for Snap to achieve sustainability on unit economics will be to pursue huge growth in user monetization.

Tying it Together

The case for Snap as a good investment really boils down to how quickly and to what extent one believes that the company can increase their monetization per user. While the potential is certainly there (as is being realized as the rapid growth in revenue per user numbers show), what’s less clear is whether or not the company has the technology or the talent (none of the key executives named in the S-1 have a particular background building advertising infrastructure or ecosystems that Google, Facebook, and even Twitter did to dominate the online advertising businesses) to do it quickly enough to justify the rumored $25 billion valuation they are striving for (a whopping 38x sales multiple using 2016 Q4 revenue as a run-rate [which the S-1 admits is a seasonally high quarter]).

What is striking to me, though, is that Snap would even attempt an IPO at this stage. In my mind, Snap has a very real shot at being a great digital media company of the same importance as Google and Facebook and, while I can appreciate the hunger from Wall Street to invest in a high-growth consumer tech company, not having a great deal of visibility / certainty around unit economics and having only barely begun monetization (with your first quarter where revenue exceeds cost of sales is a holiday quarter) poses challenges for a management team that will need to manage public market expectations around forecasts and capitalization.

In any event, I’ll be looking forward to digging in more when Snap reveals future figures around monetization and advertising strategy — and, to be honest, Facebook’s numbers going forward now that I have a better appreciation for their impressive economic model.

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Dr. Machine Learning

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Not going to happen anytime soon, sadly: the Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager; Image Credit: TrekCore

Despite the hype, it’ll likely be quite some time before human physicians will be replaced with machines (sorry, Star Trek: Voyager fans).

While “smart” technology like IBM’s Watson and Alphabet’s AlphaGo can solve incredibly complex problems, they are probably not quite ready to handle the messiness of qualitative unstructured information from patients and caretakers (“it kind of hurts sometimes”) that sometimes lie (“I swear I’m still a virgin!”) or withhold information (“what does me smoking pot have to do with this?”) or have their own agendas and concerns (“I just need some painkillers and this will all go away”).

Instead, machine learning startups and entrepreneurs interested in medicine should focus on areas where they can augment the efforts of physicians rather than replace them.

One great example of this is in diagnostic interpretation. Today, doctors manually process countless X-rays, pathology slides, drug adherence records, and other feeds of data (EKGs, blood chemistries, etc) to find clues as to what ails their patients. What gets me excited is that these tasks are exactly the type of well-defined “pattern recognition” problems that are tractable for an AI / machine learning approach.

If done right, software can not only handle basic diagnostic tasks, but to dramatically improve accuracy and speed. This would let healthcare systems see more patients, make more money, improve the quality of care, and let medical professionals focus on managing other messier data and on treating patients.

As an investor, I’m very excited about the new businesses that can be built here and put together the following “wish list” of what companies setting out to apply machine learning to healthcare should strive for:

  • Excellent training data and data pipeline: Having access to large, well-annotated datasets today and the infrastructure and processes in place to build and annotate larger datasets tomorrow is probably the main defining . While its tempting for startups to cut corners here, that would be short-sighted as the long-term success of any machine learning company ultimately depends on this being a core competency.
  • Low (ideally zero) clinical tradeoffs: Medical professionals tend to be very skeptical of new technologies. While its possible to have great product-market fit with a technology being much better on just one dimension, in practice, to get over the innate skepticism of the field, the best companies will be able to show great data that makes few clinical compromises (if any). For a diagnostic company, that means having better sensitivty and selectivity at the same stage in disease progression (ideally prospectively and not just retrospectively).
  • Not a pure black box: AI-based approaches too often work like a black box: you have no idea why it gave a certain answer. While this is perfectly acceptable when it comes to recommending a book to buy or a video to watch, it is less so in medicine where expensive, potentially life-altering decisions are being made. The best companies will figure out how to make aspects of their algorithms more transparent to practitioners, calling out, for example, the critical features or data points that led the algorithm to make its call. This will let physicians build confidence in their ability to weigh the algorithm against other messier factors and diagnostic explanations.
  • Solve a burning need for the market as it is today: Companies don’t earn the right to change or disrupt anything until they’ve established a foothold into an existing market. This can be extremely frustrating, especially in medicine given how conservative the field is and the drive in many entrepreneurs to shake up a healthcare system that has many flaws. But, the practical reality is that all the participants in the system (payers, physicians, administrators, etc) are too busy with their own issues (i.e. patient care, finding a way to get everything paid for) to just embrace a new technology, no matter how awesome it is. To succeed, machine diagnostic technologies should start, not by upending everything with a radical solution, but by solving a clear pain point (that hopefully has a lot of big dollar signs attached to it!) for a clear customer in mind.

Its reasons like this that I eagerly follow the development of companies with initiatives in applying machine learning to healthcare like Google’s DeepMind, Zebra Medical, and many more.

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Why VR Could be as Big as the Smartphone Revolution

Technology in the 1990s and early 2000s marched to the beat of an Intel-and-Microsoft-led drum.

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via IT Portal

Intel would release new chips at a regular cadence: each cheaper, faster, and more energy efficient than the last. This would let Microsoft push out new, more performance-hungry software, which would, in turn, get customers to want Intel’s next, more awesome chip. Couple that virtuous cycle with the fact that millions of households were buying their first PCs and getting onto the Internet for the first time – and great opportunities were created to build businesses and products across software and hardware.

But, over time, that cycle broke down. By the mid-2000s, Intel’s technological progress bumped into the limits of what physics would allow with regards to chip performance and cost. Complacency from its enviable market share coupled with software bloat from its Windows and Office franchises had a similar effect on Microsoft. The result was that the Intel and Microsoft drum stopped beating as they became unable to give the mass market a compelling reason to upgrade to each subsequent generation of devices.

The result was a hollowing out of the hardware and semiconductor industries tied to the PC market that was only masked by the innovation stemming from the rise of the Internet and the dawn of a new technology cycle in the late 2000s in the form of Apple’s iPhone and its Android competitors: the smartphone.

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via Mashable

A new, but eerily familiar cycle began: like clockwork, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Apple (playing the part of Intel) would devise new, more awesome chips which would feed the creation of new performance-hungry software from Google and Apple (playing the part of Microsoft) which led to demand for the next generation of hardware. Just as with the PC cycle, new and lucrative software, hardware, and service businesses flourished.

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But, just as with the PC cycle, the smartphone cycle is starting to show signs of maturity. Apple’s recent slower than expected growth has already been blamed on smartphone market saturation. Users are beginning to see each new generation of smartphone as marginal improvements. There are also eery parallels between the growing complaints over Apple software quality from even Apple fans and the position Microsoft was in near the end of the PC cycle.

While its too early to call the end for Apple and Google, history suggests that we will eventually enter a similar phase with smartphones that the PC industry experienced. This begs the question: what’s next? Many of the traditional answers to this question – connected cars, the “Internet of Things”, Wearables, Digital TVs – have not yet proven themselves to be truly mass market, nor have they shown the virtuous technology upgrade cycle that characterized the PC and smartphone industries.

This brings us to Virtual Reality. With VR, we have a new technology paradigm that can (potentially) appeal to the mass market (new types of games, new ways of doing work, new ways of experiencing the world, etc.). It also has a high bar for hardware performance that will benefit dramatically from advances in technology, not dissimilar from what we saw with the PC and smartphone.

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via Forbes

The ultimate proof will be whether or not a compelling ecosystem of VR software and services emerges to make this technology more of a mainstream “must-have” (something that, admittedly, the high price of the first generation Facebook/Oculus, HTC/Valve, and Microsoft products may hinder).

As a tech enthusiast, its easy to get excited. Not only is VR just frickin’ cool (it is!), its probably the first thing since the smartphone with the mass appeal and virtuous upgrade cycle that can bring about the huge flourishing of products and companies that makes tech so dynamic to be involved with.

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