My son Fallon, who is six and still hasn’t lost any teeth, has a beef with Apple, iTunes, and the iOS App Store. "Apple is greedy", Fallon says. But he has come up with a way for the company to improve its manners through a revised business model.
Fallon would like to buy more apps for his iPod touch, but the good ones cost money (what Fallon calls computer money) and he has been burned in the past by apps that weren’t really as good as the reviews suggested, probably because the reviewers weren’t six.
"If I buy an app and I don’t like it, I want Apple to give me my money back", Fallon says. "Or maybe they can keep a little of it. Here’s my idea. If I buy an app and delete it in the first hour I get all my computer money back. If I delete it after a day Apple can keep 10 pennies from every dollar. If I delete it after two days Apple can keep 20 pennies. If I keep the app for 10 days or more I can’t get any money back".
Two days ago, Paul Otellini resigned his position as CEO of Intel. Analysts and pundits weigh-in on the matter, generally attributing Otellini’s failure to Intel’s late and flawed effort to gain traction in the mobile processor space. While I tend to agree with this assessment, it doesn’t go far enough to explain Otellini’s fall, which is not only his fault but also the fault of Intel’s board of directors. Yes, Otellini was forced out by the board, but the better action would have been for the board to have fired itself, too.
If there was a single event that triggered this end to Otellini’s tenure at Intel I’m guessing it is Apple’s decision to abandon Intel chips for its desktop computers. There has been no such announcement but Apple has sent signals to the market and the company doesn’t send signals for fun. The question isn’t if Apple will drop Intel but when and the way product design changes are made the when is not this Christmas but next.
Earlier this year I wrote a series of columns about crowdfunding and the JOBS Act, which was signed into law last April with several goals, one of which is to help startups raise money from ordinary investors. Those columns were about the promise of crowdfunding and the JOBS Act while this one is about what progress has been made so far toward that end. For startups, alas, the news is not entirely good. Crowdfunding looks like it may not be available at all for the smaller, needier companies the law is supposedly designed to serve.
It’s one thing to pass a law and quite another to write rules to carry out that law. Title 3 of the JOBS Act required the US Securities & Exchange Commission to write rules for the so-called crowdfunding intermediariesor portals specified by the Act, to choose or create a regulator to monitor those new entities, and to write rules clarifying how deals could be advertised to non-accredited middle-class investors.
A couple weeks from now we’re going to start serializing my 1992 book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date. It’s the book that was the basis for my 1996 documentary TV series Triumph of the Nerds and ultimately led to this column starting on pbs.org in 1997.
What goes around comes around.
Late last month, eBay, the dominant auction site, took away from users the ability to search auction listings with wildcard keywords, which can be very useful to buyers looking for very specific part numbers or product series. It is (or rather was) easy to store wildcard searches on eBay as a powerful way of drilling down through millions of items as they are listed. No more. And eBay’s reason for eliminating wildcard searches? “Our research showed that using specific terms to expand one’s search was a more effective method than wildcard searches, which oftentimes included unexpected variations that cluttered search results. By removing the wildcard (*) advanced search functionality, we’re able to deliver search results more efficiently and faster".
Yeah, right. Yes, it probably is more accurate to list individually all possible permutations of a search term, but if they can be replaced nearly as well with a single asterisk, why make users do it the hard way?
In video "Can Nanotechnology Create Utopia?" physicist Michio Kaku talks about the upsides, downsides, insides and outsides of having a replicator like on Star Trek to make anything we’d ever need or want. It’s a compelling vision and he’s right that its implications go far beyond the economic to include cultural, social, even psychological. Kaku says it’s possible to make such a device and suggests we’ll have it in 100 years.
I say we’ll have it in 20.
Earlier this week, as Hurricane Sandy beat the crap out of the Eastern seaboard, I received an email message from lower Manhattan. You may have received this message, too, or one just like it. It felt to me like getting a radiogram from the sinking Titanic. An Internet company was running out of diesel fuel for its generator and would shortly drop off the net. The identity of the company doesn’t matter. What matters is what we can learn from the experience.
The company had weathered power outages before and had four days of diesel fuel stored onsite. Managers felt ready for Sandy. But most of their fuel wasn’t at the generator, it was stored in tanks in the building basement -- a basement that was soon flooded, the transfer pumps destroyed by incoming seawater. It was like a miniature Fukushima Daiichi, not far from Wall Street.
Napier & Son was the most successful British manufacturer of aircraft engines in the 1920s and 30s with their 12-cylinder Napier Lion powering 163 different types of aircraft between 1918 and 1935. Over that 17 year period the Lion grew from 450 to 1350 horsepower and was, for awhile, the most powerful aircraft, boat and car engine in the world, holding world speed records in all three venues at the same time. And then the Napier Lion was suddenly gone -- a lesson from which Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer could benefit if he and his company don’t repeat it.
Napier perfected the Lion engine over those 17 years, improving it in every way until it was the best and most efficient engine of its class in the world. Then, seemingly overnight, the class changed as air forces and record setters alike suddenly needed more than the 1,350 horsepower a finely-tuned Lion could deliver. Napier’s Lion gave way to Rolls-Royce’s larger and innately more powerful Merlin and Griffon engines and Napier, for all intents and purposes, was gone.
Today is a big day for Microsoft, with the Windows 8 and tablet launches, and potentially a very big day, too, for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. It had better be, because some pundits think Win8 is Ballmer’s last hurrah, that he’ll be forced to step down if the new operating system isn’t a big success. That might be true, though I have a hard time imagining who would replace Ballmer at this point and how the company would change as a result. I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement -- heck, I’m among those who have called for Ballmer to go -- I’m just not sure what would be any better. More on that in a future column.
Today, rather than look to the future or even to Windows 8, I’d like to write more about Ballmer, putting his reign at Microsoft into some context.
The H-1B visa program was created in 1990 to allow companies to bring skilled technical workers into the USA. It’s a non-immigrant visa and so has nothing at all to do with staying in the country, becoming a citizen, or starting a business. Big tech employers are constantly lobbying for increases in H-1B quotas citing their inability to find qualified US job applicants. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and other leaders from the IT industry have testified about this before Congress. Both major political parties embrace the H-1B program with varying levels of enthusiasm.
But Bill Gates is wrong. What he said to Congress may have been right for Microsoft but was wrong for America and can only lead to lower wages, lower employment, and a lower standard of living. This is a bigger deal than people understand: it’s the rebirth of industrial labor relations circa 1920. Our ignorance about the H-1B visa program is being used to unfairly limit wages and steal -- yes, steal -- jobs from US citizens.
I struck a chord with my recent column on H-1B visa abuse, so soon follow up with an enormous post that tries to explain the underlying issues. But before then here’s something I came across that doesn’t quite fit that theme but was too interesting to let pass unnoticed -- how companies like IBM intimidate employees and discourage them from speaking up.
A few years ago there was a class action lawsuit against IBM. Thirty-two thousand server administrators were being forced to work overtime without extra pay. IBM lost the suit and paid a $65 million settlement. That’s just over $2,000 per affected employee before the lawyers took their share. Then IBM gave all those workers a 15 percent pay cut with the justification they’d get it back in overtime pay. Next IBM restricted the workers to 40 hour weeks so there would be no overtime.
As anyone with a heartbeat knows, Apple has a product event coming on Tuesday the 23rd in San Jose at which we’ll certainly see the iPad mini, perhaps a new MacBook Pro and maybe some new iMacs. But whatever is being introduced I think it’s fair to say that the event is still in flux, because Apple late Wednesday canceled another corporate event in Arizona scheduled for the same time, this one at The Phoenician resort.
Apple booked the entire hotel (600+ rooms) for Sunday through Wednesday. Their setup people were on site Tuesday. Late Wednesday, as setup was nearing completion, Apple told the resort that they “wanted all of their managers to be on site in their stores next Tuesday for the upcoming tablet release” -- that they were canceling the function.
I’ve been away. We had a death in the family (my brother-in-law) which turned me into a single parent for a few days -- a paralyzing experience for an old man with three small boys and two large dogs. You never know how much your spouse does until it all falls for awhile on your shoulders. I am both humbled and a bit more wrinkled for the experience.
While I was being a domestic god a reader passed to me this blog post by John Miano, a former software developer, founder of The Programmers Guild, now turned lawyer who works on immigrant worker issues as a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) a supposedly nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. I don’t know Miano and frankly I hadn’t known about the CIS, but he writes boldly about H-1B visa abuses and I found that very interesting.
First in a series. Thirty years ago, when I worked for a time in Saudi Arabia, I saw a public execution. I didn’t attend an execution, I didn’t witness an execution, I just happened to be there. There was in the center of this town a square and in the square were gathered hundreds of people. I worked in a building next to the square and looked out the window to see what caused all the noise. At that moment a prisoner was brought forward, his arms bound behind him. He was dragged up the steps to a platform and there fell to his knees.
Another man, whom I quickly came to understand was the executioner, climbed to the platform with the prisoner and poked him in the side with a long curved sword. The prisoner involuntarily jerked up just as the sword slashed down and just like that there was a head rolling off the platform, the body falling dead like a sack of flour. The crowd roared. Beginning to end it took less than a minute.
Today marks a year since the death of Steve Jobs -- a year that has changed my life in many ways with at least two of those ways yet to be announced. The anniversary seems to be an excuse for anyone with a byline who knew or even bumped into Jobs to throw out a reminiscence or two, and I’m not immune to that disease. So here’s the story of when I tried to get Jobs and Apple to back my Moon Shot.
I’ve been trying since 2007 to mount a private unmanned mission to the Moon, though five years in it feels sometimes like I could have walked there by now. It turns out that the greatest challenge to reaching the moon isn’t technical but financial. Even though my Moon project is by far the cheapest one around, the trick is to raise money at a faster rate than the budget expansion that inevitably happens as you face realities along the way.