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Made my first contribution to a Kickstarter project, the Zooka

Written by on February 23, 2012 in individuals - Comments Off

Seems like a nice speaker — “the Zooka”:http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1733547063/zooka-bluetooth-speaker-for-your-ipad?ref=email — (though they probably have a trademark issue to resolve) and I’m glad to support a Northwest project. It is also exciting to see the diversity of projects up on Kickstarter, and nice to see that people are willing to pay for value and creativity. After 15 years of people demanding more and more free content and service on the Internet, any shift back towards sustainable business models seems good. Personally I feel way better about paying for something, rather than getting “free” content and having my attention sold to the highest bidder without my involvement and consent.

MSFT and the decline of the PC hardware ecosystem

Written by on February 18, 2012 in individuals - Comments Off

In the late 80s, IBM attempted to reassert control over the PC hardware platform with the introduction of the PS/2 and its proprietary “MicroChannel”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_Channel_architecture architecture. The cloners fought back, customers voted with their feet, the PS/2 initiative failed, and the era of open PC hardware continued and flourished. This was hugely beneficial for MSFT as a thousand PC OEMs bloomed, PC-based innovation surged and costs dropped, and MSFT software rode the wave of market expansion.

And it was great for end users. Not only because it drove system costs down, but it also created a rich market of add-on products — everyone could mix and match hardware to create their optimal system, whether they cared about cost or performance or maintainability or upgradability or whatever. Corporations could spec out and build standard low cost machines, enthusiasts could build super-tweaked machines, verticals could build out specialty machines, all on the same open hardware platform.

In the last 15 years, though, the market has shifted dramatically towards the laptop form factor. This shift has been a relative disaster for MSFT. The industry has moved away from an open hardware chassis with mix-and-match components, to closed tightly-engineered all-in-one machines. This shift has played to Apple’s strengths in design and integration and has negated many of the benefits of the PC ecosystem. The PC industry is still struggling to figure out how to regain design and profit momentum — Intel’s “Ultrabook”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultrabook effort being the latest scheme. But the Ultrabook is just a direct response to the MacBook, it does nothing to recapture the open hardware experience of the 90s.

The open hardware community still exists in various forms, but is no longer focused on the PC platform and is not much of an asset for MSFT. Enthusiasts still build PCs, mostly for gaming — “Maximum PC”:http://www.maximumpc.com/best-of-the-best for instance has a good guide to components, “Newegg”:http://www.newegg.com is the place to buy. But this isn’t mainstream any more. The “maker” community is vibrant but is focused on other platforms largely — “Arduino”:http://www.arduino.cc/, the “Kickstarter”:http://www.kickstarter.com community, etc. The vibe and energy around open hardware is great, but it is no longer tied to the PC experience and is no longer an asset for MSFT.

MSFT has always been great at chasing taillights and is hard at work supporting the Ultrabook, competing with the Apple stores at retail, pushing Windows Phone, etc. But chasing Apple’s taillights results in products that are more and more like Apple’s — fully integrated hardware/software/services, a captive retail experience. MSFT has to do all this, the mainstream of the market is here, but there is nothing distinctive about the resultant products and experience. The Ultrabook/Windows/Microsoft Store products may equal the Apple experience, and may offer users a few more choices of hardware brands (does anyone care?), but the experience won’t stand out. Necessary work but not sufficient to recapture thought leadership in the market — at the end of the day, MSFT will be able to claim parity but no more than that.

If I was in a leadership role at MSFT, I’d invest in strategies to recreate the open hardware platform dynamic around the Windows platform. It is not obvious how to do so with the laptop and tablet as the mainstream platform, but I would spend $100s of millions trying. MSFT clearly has the cash to spend on new frontiers and new adventures, a couple hundred million on an effort to change the basis of competition in the PC market seems like a wise bet, even if it fails.

How about putting a “maker’s corner” in every retail store with modified cases and modified machines, maybe even workshops? Get the energy of the PC gaming community into the store, let people see this energy. How can the laptop design be modified to support add on hardware — super high speed optical expansion busses, wireless high speed expansion busses, novel expansion chassis ideas? Sifteo cubes are kind of cool, can this idea be used to provide hardware extensions to laptops? Are there other ways to “snap on” hardware to extend the laptop or tablet, using bluetooth or induction or other mechanisms? Can MSFT seed the maker community with funds or tools? Can MSFT embrace Arduino somehow, or Kickstarter? Could the PC be the hub for thousands of Arduino-based sensors and actuators and gadgets? These ideas are all admittedly poorly thought out, and I am not sure any one idea is right, or if any will work.

But I would spend a lot of money chasing after any idea that would move away from closed all-in-one hardware designs, and I would experiment with many ways to reinject open hardware dynamics back into the PC/tablet market. Ultrabook is not this — it is a fine and adequate taillight chaser, but it won’t shift competitive balance back in MSFT’s favor.

This is not the only reason for MSFT’s stagnation in the last decade, there are many other aspects to consider, but the dwindling of the open hardware ecosystem has been a loss of MSFT. For another take on Apple’s success against MSFT in the last decade, check out “Rich’s analysis”:http://www.themarketingplaybook.com/2012/02/stocks-bonds-commodities-and-apple/ — the observations about vertical vs horizontal integration ring true.

Enterprise 4.0: IT’s ongoing re-platforming

Written by on February 11, 2012 in Blog, individuals - Comments Off

As we look back at the history of computing, it’s clear that each wave ushered in new rounds of groundbreaking technology that birthed new companies, increased productivity, gave rise to IT, empowered businesses and changed the world. In this blog post, I’ll take a look at early technology waves, reflect on how they changed IT and look at the most recent trends and the opportunities they usher in for innovation.

We are experiencing a number of shifts and a true evolution in enterprise IT. It seems like every day there is a new term being coined and new trends “up and coming.” During these past several decades, a few major waves come to mind and can be identified as ongoing trends:

1. Mainframe / mini era (1959)

2. Networked desktops and client server (1986ish)

3. Browser based and app server (1997)

4. Mobile and “cloud” (2008)

Each of these major trends caused transitions that led to a new way of interacting with technology. I like to call this shift, “re-platforming.” It’s bigger than merely a transformation since it affects the way things are “stood-up” in an enterprise. As this re-platforming is a catalyst for IT, which constantly needs to reposition/rebrand itself to meet current times and the needs of its users.

Mainframe/mini era

I don’t have first-hand experience working with mainframes and mini computers, but I did see them fade to the background with the proliferation of microprocessor-based systems in the 1980s. What makes this interesting is with the arrival of the microprocessor-based PC those in the mainframe/mini industry belittled it for not being a “real” computer. Yet, use of the PC grew and soon it took over jobs previously only done on its bigger cousins, such as data entry and text editing – use cases which opened the door for disruption and innovation, arrived by way of Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Word. The PC no longer needed a reason to be, and it ushered in a completely new definition of a computer.

Networked desktops and client servers

As technology advanced, the PC became more powerful and technologists began looking for ways to improve on their performance by connecting computers together, leading to the development of Ethernet in 1980. Ethernet allowed PCs to be connected together, and soon the notion of networking the PC (client) to a host (server) was born. The idea encouraged openness and commoditized hardware and software and gave rise to the idea that your client could be anywhere; it no longer had to be in the same building or even the same state.

Browser based and application servers

In the mid 1990s, the Internet began to take hold and IT experimented with the idea of using a central server to house an application and using the Internet as the access point to the application. Since networking and server disciplines need to exist as a prerequisite, the build out of client-servers laid the groundwork for the application servers – if your hardware (client) could be anywhere, why couldn’t the application be anywhere? This brings us to the browser and application server era. The growth of programmable web servers and browsers shepherded in application platforms like BEA and .NET, and the broad deployment of software such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer resource management (CRM) empowered businesses to garner more value from their data.

Cloud and Mobile

More recently, IT has begun to ride the cloud and mobile wave. Everyday I see new companies and innovative technologies that are emerging to leverage this trend. While we’re still at an early point of adoption with cloud, it is clear that it is and will continue to be a huge game changer for IT.

Cloud computing encompasses many things and I want to look at both public and private (hybrid) clouds and emerging technologies, which include the development of “as a service” platforms, mainly:

· Software as a Service (SaaS) – the new way software is delivered

· Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – think of it as the new server, network and storage

· Platform as a Service (PaaS) the new developer tool stack

These emerging technologies are having a huge impact on IT and are put to work differently based on the specifics of each enterprise’s requirements. On-premise, or private, cloud computing (IaaS and PaaS) is important for enterprises looking to maintain the privacy aspect but still receive the same self-service semantics as public cloud. Public, or hosted, cloud computing enables central IT managers to have the flexibility to broker various services to their business users, saving dramatically on costs and time.

In mobile, as always, history repeats itself. For just as the mainframe computing world belittled the PC, so the PC world belittled the mobile handheld device. Think back to 2007, when the iPhone was first introduced. The cool mobile phone was the small sleek Motorola Razr – and its champions poked fun of the iPhone and called it a brick. And yet, what happened at the end of this year’s Super Bowl? The TV cameras charged into the field as the Lombardi Trophy was about to be awarded. What did viewers see? A sea of iPhones in the hands of NY Giants players as they rushed to capture the winning moment. Yes, the iPhone and the other smartphones it ushered in have won. They are first-class computing citizens with capabilities that laptops lack including location-based services and truly continuous connectivity. Mobile devices as enterprise IT endpoints are no longer the exception but rather the rule.

Users are enamored with their smartphones with always-on connectivity and easy access, visually exciting applications that find their favorite restaurant, or keeping them connected to family and friends. These very same users want these attributes in their business applications too. They want to point (or touch) and shoot, and within seconds have their application up and running. They don’t want to have to enter a URL in a browser – it’s the last resort now. So on the surface one may say “so what” the phone is a micro computer with a little OS and some APIs, just hire a developer to create little applications for that small screen. If only it were that simple. The phone is outside the corporate network completely and the apps need to deal with network latency that would give inside the house app timeouts left and right. The phone doesn’t readily give an end user the opportunity to authenticate with Active Directory and needs its own functionality and development framework, which turns out gave birth to mobile PaaS. The establishment never sees the disruption in its true glory.

What about getting apps on to the device and managing them? Is this an IT function? What traditional PC and app lifecycle management tools are built for this? Ah, the web app. IT moved away from heavy weight apps a while ago and now we’re back to doing that again for mobile. So the net of it is all the challenges equal opportunity where desire is high at the point of attack.

The next big shift

With each new trend disruption followed and brought along opportunity. Opportunity for the next brilliant mind to create a technology that saw the solution to the obstacle. Each trend was accompanied by the creation of new companies and technologies. What disruption will arise from the mobile and cloud trend?

I’m betting on technology born in and enabling the success of big consumer facing properties like Facebook, Zynga and Google as the next shapers of enterprise IT. Examples include NoSQL, Hadoop and social mechanics. Unstructured data is growing faster than structured data and is being mined for business intelligence and productivity. Organizations are attempting to leverage social networks, fascinated by the interaction people have with each other and their ability to rally a protest or crowdsource the facts of a news story. It’s only a matter of time before our yearbook photos and status updates are part of the company directory.

We’re at the start of a wave and new companies are being created on a daily basis to lead the way to innovation. Each previous wave resulted in the creation of great enterprise software companies and we are sure to see this continue. Disruption creates opportunity and the desire to grab the opportunity yields outstanding innovation. At Ignition Partners, we are investing in this latest wave now and will continue to invest in technologies that are addressing the needs of future waves. As operators during the previous waves, and now as investors, we’re excited to be part of it.

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