Monday, August 27, 2012

Apple wins; Samsung loses. Consumers win and lose?

Apple win could impact smartphone development - MarketWatch

Somewhere in Tech heaven, Steve Jobs has an enormous smile that could be only surpassed by the chesire cat.  In the biography, Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Jobs claimed that the Android software was stolen from Apple with the presence of Eric Schmidt on Apple's board.  With that claim, Jobs vowed to go "thermonuclear" on Google and prove Android is a fraud.

The recent decision on the patent fight was not exactly what Steve would have wanted but it got pretty close.  The jury of the U.S. District Court in San Jose, CA awarded Apple $1 billion in damages against Samsung Mobile, the flagship Android smartphone developer.  It wasn't Google but it might as well have been.  The verdict essentially validated Apple's claim that various design features of the Samsung-flavor of Android infringed on its design patents, making Samsung smartphones largely indistinguishable from the iPhone.  For example, the multi-touch feature and even the physical look-and-feel of the mobile devices were just two of the six patents that the court upheld.

In Job's now virally famous Stanford commencement speech, Jobs took a stab at Microsoft, saying, "And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely no personal computer would have [multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts]." So, what would happened to the industry (maybe to the world) if Apple did have a patent on the Mac design features, stopping Microsoft from "copying" it?  Would we be stuck in a universe dominated by Mac with a litter of green and black screens with dot-matrix font?  Would have Microsoft or anyone else with their backs against the wall actually built something truly, innovatively better than the Mac?  We will never know but now a parallel looms for smartphones and tablets.

"Good artists copy.  Great artists steal" is a quote often attributed to the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, whom Steve Jobs admired.  Ironically, the most famous person to use this quote extensively was Steve Jobs. (See Youtube clip, Steve was never famous for integrity but hypocrisy he might be.  Perhaps the intent of Picasso or Jobs when using those words were that great artists can capitalize on others' idea to the point the world recognizes them as the authority or source of the innovation.  A great example of this is the iPod or iPhone.  They weren't the first movers in the MP3 or smartphone markets but now are the de facto standard of quality and innovation.

So, what's wrong with copying then?  It worked for Apple but now no one else can do it.  A great example is the luxury car market.  In the late 1990s, Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura entered the market as the premium brands of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, respectively.  Despite being owned by Japanese companies, the look and feel of the cars from these brands did not resemble their home country.  They actually looked more European, if not facsimiles of Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar.  Before the entry of the Japanese luxury brands,  it can be argued that the European "Big Three" had a lock on premium automobiles.  With that, next year editions of vehicles possessed iterative improvements that were largely negligible to the buyer.  Even though the value to the customer actually decreased year-to-year, consumers still bought.  Enter the Japanese with their industry-known quality standards and add-in European design flavor.  The European "Big Three" suddenly woke up and their vehicle innovations soared.  In fact, you might even say they copied some of those Japanese innovations that modernized the often stuffy and luxurious models of old.

Now look at the experience of Apollo 13.  Most remember the history of it from the motion picture of the same name.  Three astronauts were set for lunar landing of the moon but aborted due to an explosion of an oxygen tank.   The astronauts and mission command in Houston did not have set procedures or past lessons learned to handle this emergency.  They had nothing to copy or steal.  Their backs were against the wall.  Because of those circumstances, the team was able to generate original ideas to save the astronauts and the space module.  Those ideas quickly became part of the NASA book on standard operating procedures.

Now the mobile device landscape is going to enter its own inflection point.  Will Apple continue to innovate with competition unable to ride its "coat tails"?  History tells us not, but Apple is not an ordinary company.    Will Android and its universe of vendors have an Apollo 13 moment and usher in a new standard that will send Apple scrambling to innovate?

As for consumers, in the short run they will likely lose because the efforts of vendors to build iPhone-quality phones without emulating iPhone will probably fall short of expectations.  Kinda like the first touch screen phones that tried and failed to compete with iPhones.  They were derided as knock-offs.  In the long run, Android vendors will be compelled to pour more resources into their design and development.  In five years or so, we might actually see the iPhone "killer."

In the meantime, pray that the spirit of Jobs stays at Apple, where creativity, and not the lawyers, leads the innovation charge for sake of customers and technology advancement.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

To be or Not to be

Here's an interesting topic of conversation from a case study I recently read in school.

Imagine a recent acquisition's core team leaves the company at the same time.  You are then plugged in as the program manager with the primary job of keeping the "boat afloat" by retaining whomever is left and then re-staffing the team while convincing customers that it will be alright if not better.

Then imagine you actually got that done.  Key employees were convinced to stay, not with simply money or promotions, but true inspiration about their jobs' importanance in the grand scheme of the world.  Even better, you hire an employee who's a "walk on water" engineer.  And then it comes down to the results.  Customers are not alarmed but actually confident in you and your abilities.  The financials for the team are soaring, exceeding last year's total sales by the second quarter of the current year.  This is a pretty good start at being the "boss."

In the next month, management decides to have a significant re-org and divides each of the software groups into subgroups of marketing, development, deployment, and support, much like the industry standard.  You get assigned the marketing and product development teams because of your keen insight into market trends and competitor SWOT.  You are now the Product Manager, the CEO of the product.  A colleague takes over the deployment and support teams and formally becomes the Program Manager.  He's more adept at keeping customers happy and manages with a military regiment.  It sounds like a good framework to have specialization and firmly accelerate the business to rival commercial competitors.

Then 45 days later, the director tells you, "Nope.  I think this re-org is too 'hard' to do and we will revert back to the previous organization until we attain a critical mass to naturally transition to the new org structure."  Whatever "critical mass" means in this sense; I don't know.  But, you, who steadied the "ship", do not get assigned the Program Manager job, but now are simply the marketing "guy" and find out later that my previous work as Program Manager was only at an interim basis.  Then later you learn your colleague has been in the director's ear while you were managing the turn-around.  

In this role of the marketer, you go from managing 25 persons to yourself.  You get handed powerpoint slides to update and when you question strategic assumptions, you got told, "We're doing this.  There's no need to discuss any further."  What do you do now?  

Multiple thoughts run through your head.  First, you vowed never to use political chicanery to get a job.  You want to earn it.  Secondly, does the boss even understand what a marketer brings to the table besides promotional skills?  You wonder how this all transpired so fast while you were trying to do the right thing for the business.  Then the director tells you, besides marketing for all his software products, that you are also responsible for being the "back-up" manager when the Program Manager is out.  You think in your head, "I worked to get more responsibility but no authority, but everyone else I've seen in this business received their authority via political channels.  Am I playing the corporate ladder all wrong?  Did all those notions of effective work culture from business school just vaporize when executives walk back in the door while I held to them like a pollyanna?"  

Then you ask yourself, "Is it even worth it anymore if my work hard is not earning what I feel I deserve?"  You start divorcing yourself from the day-to-day operations and essentially do not make yourself a resource to your colleague.  He's on his own.  Employees still come to you, instead of him, because they feel like he doesn't listen.  You turn them away because it's not your job to talk to their boss for them.  

Are you doing the wrong thing now?  Are you simply being a "sore loser"?  Will taking the passive-aggressive approach (protest) just simply undermine your credibility when it comes to supporting the business?  Or is it time to simply walk away and find a new place to work?