January 31, 2014

In Tech, In Order for X to Win, Y Doesn't Have to Lose

While it's somewhat hard to imagine now, with Apple seeing incredible success, it was less than two decades ago when the company, facing a small market share, and minuscule developer interest, had to pull a rabbit out of its hat to ensure longtime survival. That surprise came from an unexpected partner - longtime nemesis Microsoft, who in 1997, not only gave the then-beleaguered company a much-needed cash injection of $150 million, but also promised continued updates to the then-essential Microsoft Office suite, required to keep Macintosh's hopes alive as a viable platform.

Amid the shocked faithful, who responded with boos over making Internet Explorer the default browser for the Macintosh, instead of the arguably more Mac-like Netscape Navigator, CEO Steve Jobs said the unforgettable phrase easy to forget in an environment where it's commonplace to pit technologies against one another:
“If we want to move forward, and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.” (Source: YouTube)
Turns out, as with many things, he was right. Microsoft, despite the company's many challenges, still is worth more than $300 billion, and saw income of more than $16 billion in the most recent quarter. When it comes to operating system choices, usually one picks Macintosh or Windows (and not both), or mobile OS choices, one could pick iOS or Windows phone (and not both), but both companies have managed to have significant places in the tech world for the last two decades.

Rarely does the winner take all.
Fast forward from Steve's words in Boston in 1997 to today - a world where big companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and others command significant visibility and influence - but comparably younger companies like Twitter, Dropbox, Tesla, Nest (pre-acquisiton), Uber and others manage to also carve out interesting opportunities and become big companies themselves.

It's often assumed that if one "wins", another has to "lose". If Facebook wins, does Twitter lose? If Android wins, does iOS lose? If Amazon wins, does Google lose?

As a user of these technologies, and someone who watches the market closely or writes about these technologies, I see lines forming - not just of people who prefer one technology or one company relative to another, but of people who also display an equal and opposite reaction, to strongly dislike the company or technologies less preferred.

Those decisions have odd echoes. It's assumed that if you like the iPhone, then you must prefer Apple Mail over Gmail. If you like Windows Phone, you must also prefer Bing search to Google search. And if you have a blog that covers the minutiae of Apple's comings and goings, that documenting any negative opinion about their perceived competition should be highlighted with equal or higher volume.

Simply stated: I disagree, and think we can do better. You can like one company's vision or products even if you purchase from another one. It can be possible that all the major players find a space where they are successful. And the best products are built when it's the users' values that are at the forefront, rather than a false battle started to strengthen the position against another player.

Larry Page, Google's CEO, addressed this point at Google I/O last summer, when he said:
"Every story I read about Google is 'us vs some other company' or some stupid thing, and I just don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist. Being negative isn’t how we make progress. Most important things are not zero sum, there is a lot of opportunity out there."
Recently, The Verge wrote a great in-depth piece about being a fanboy, asking "Have you ever loved something so much it hurt?" showcasing a number of examples of people so consumed about making sure people knew which side of these battles they were on that they were unforgiving in their tone with anyone else who disagreed. I believe you can have a strong preference, and can evangelize a product or platform, like I do often with those I enjoy, without having to cut down alternatives or those who've selected a different way.

The world is a very large place. There are many millions of people who haven't yet purchased smartphones, tablets or PCs, let alone decided on their favorite OS or apps. There is room for many small companies and big companies alike to innovate and do incredible things. There's room for us all to intellectually choose to be fair and review each new product on its merits and stand for those things we believe and like without needing to tear down alternatives. It might be fun, but we can do better.

Disclosures for transparency's sake: I work at Google, which makes some of my personal favorite products, like Android, Gmail and ChromeOS. It can be assumed Google occasionally competes with other market participants like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

(Images via Dreamstime, which is an excellent resource)

January 21, 2014

Either you are in Engineering, or you are in Sales.

At BlueArc, our longtime CEO and executive chairman Gianluca Rattazzi had a saying which he often weaved into his presentations at our company all-hands meetings. "Either you are in engineering, or you are in sales."

The idea was to have employees from all corners of the company take ownership of our shared revenue goals, or think about what each of us could do, whether we were in Marketing, HR, Finance or Support, to encourage us to meet our number. Even if we weren't dialing for dollars or meeting with customers, if we weren't the people actually building the product ourselves, we had to think like salespeople. It also was aimed to reduce conflict between teams, as we wouldn't shake our heads at the antics of account managers, or point fingers when one territory or account proved harder than expected.

Meanwhile, engineers have to keep being focused on what they do best, which is design and deliver incredible products. Most engineers, as Dilbert often points out, make terrible sales people. They would likely rush to tell you the product's latest flaw or highlight the bug list of the week instead of working to find a way to make the current offering fit your needs - which would delay or block the sales cycle.

As I see it, product managers are the buffer between engineers and marketing. Marketing is the buffer between product management and the real world (aka the customers and press). Between those two hops, code turns into features, and features turn into benefits. If lucky, those benefits can turn into revenue, and as most companies tell you, revenue solves all problems.

Which brings us back to the split - either you are in engineering, or you are in sales. Even if you don't carry a quota-bearing number, as an employee of a company, you take some amount of pride from the work delivered there. When the company is having a hard time, you have a hard time. When the company is preparing a new product, you are probably eager to try that product, and tell the world about it.

At Google, as I mentioned last November, that process includes early access and beta testing, which we call dogfooding. Many of us are lucky enough to get early access to things like +Google Glass or the Chromebook Pixel. We are more likely to be using a Nexus 5, Nexus 7 or Moto X than the average +Android user, and have a more-encompassing understanding of the company's vision and products than those outside the company.

As an early adopter and technology enthusiast, promoting products I like is second nature. I've been touting ChromeOS for years. I switched to Android well before picking up a Google badge. I always tell people when products I like are fantastic. And that extends to visionary new ideas like Google Glass. I've recently seen some memes on various tech blogs about a perceived dropoff in use by Google employees of this early version of the product - saying the product should be so fantastic that people clamor to use it, and trying to read the tea leaves into saying the product won't succeed - a curious proposition considering it hasn't even launched yet beyond a small circle of Glass Explorers.

My Kids, Racing #throughglass

Without diving too deep into those weeds, I can say I do use it, and I find having a first-person view for recording video and taking photos incredibly valuable. I get instant notifications of email and texts and can respond by voice, hands-free. And wherever I go while wearing Glass, the questions are from excited people who are delighted to see how simple it is to use, not to mention how it non-intrusively lets me continue a conversation, while making eye contact, with the small viewer being out of the way. I take Glass with me on walks to the park with my kids. I took Glass with me to the +San Francisco Zoo on Monday. It becomes another lightweight way to capture the experience.

A View of My Wife and Twins #throughglass

If you're inclined to be skeptical, and that sounds like sales, that brings us back to the original thought - as an employee of a company that makes things, you represent the product. You can help others see how a product can be used, and if you're spotted using the competitor's phone or OS, or you prefer a competitive service or platform, people see that. That's part of why Steve Ballmer's kids weren't even allowed to have iPods and Bill Gates' kids used MSN search instead of Google. Those kids didn't work for Microsoft, but by extension, it would be a fairly bad case study to see them using competitive products.

The good news is I don't believe I'm at a place where I'm asked to use low-quality products like the Zune and MSN Search. It's easy to get excited about products that are making it easier to get information and share updates more quickly, or to get to my data no matter where I am, from any device. I can't go back twenty years and become an engineer, taking all the required computer science courses needed to be the true alpha geek, but I know I can do my part to improve the product from the inside, and tell the world about it on the outside. Think about yourself in your role. If you're not in engineering, aren't you in sales?

Disclosures: I work for Google, obviously. I often get to dogfood our products, like Glass, the Chromebook Pixel and others, free of charge. I paid retail price for my Nexus 5 and Nexus 7, and prefer Android to alternatives. If I forgot a disclosure, I should disclose that too.

January 14, 2014

Cover Makes My Android Phone Smart and Personal

I take my Nexus 5 everywhere I go. It's with me at work, at home, in the car, and practically anywhere. Considering I'm giving this device so much of my time, it makes sense that the device learns from my behavior, as I use different apps and do different tasks in different places and at different times. Instead of being an unchanging brick that waits for my next instruction, smart services like Google Now are bringing me updates relevant to my interests at the right time, and the relatively new Cover app is showing me what applications I might want to use next.

Developed by my good friends +Todd Jackson and +Edward Ho, along with +Gordon Luk, and designed only for +Android, Cover learns when I use different apps, and where, and brings those applications to a key piece of real estate on our phones that doesn't get much love - the lock screen. While other teams have designed widgets and launchers, the lock screen is an interesting battleground and one the typical smartphone user typically sees dozens of times a day. Now, instead of just being a place to wake your phone up, it is personalized and functional. It's as if somebody brought you breakfast in bed instead of forcing you to go to the kitchen and get all the ingredients yourself out of your many cupboards and fridge. And, like the best personalization systems, it starts out with great guesses, but gets smarter the more you use it.

Cover's starting point is fairly well defined. There are three main scenarios - you at home, at work, and in the car. When you're in the car, either driving or as a passenger, you're less likely to use some apps you use at the office, but others more.

Cover Highlights Some of My Top Apps at Home and Work

For me, I've always got +Spotify or Google Music playing on the ride to and from the office. It's in the car when I usually make phone calls to my wife to tell her I'm coming home, and make one last offer to get something on the way home. When I do get home, +Cover recommends I put the music on my +Sonos, or settle down and watch a film on +Netflix. And yes, practically everywhere I go, Gmail and Hangouts (for chat and SMS) play a big role.

Add Your Address to Cover to Make It Smarter

I've been a longtime believer in the world of personalization. I think your streams should be smart. Your apps and sites should be smart, and the information that you put into the system should benefit you as much as it does the company whose service you use. I took a field trip up to the Cover offices on Friday and talked with the team about my early feedback on the app, and some ideas on where they could go next - a real Silicon Valley perk.

In addition to tackling the lock screen in a smart way, the Cover team has also made an impression on people through its Android only strategy. While many developers build in parallel for iOS and Android, or may go iOS first and Android second, the open nature of Android made developing for it the obvious choice. You simply can't do what Cover has achieved on iOS, and they've made exceptional effort to make the application beautiful and inviting.

I test a lot of services and apps, and tell you guys about a few. But Cover has made an instant impression on me, and it's one I'm keeping on my phone. If you're on Android, and you should be, add it to your phone or tablet here. I've known Todd and Ed from their time at Google, when they worked on Gmail, Google Buzz and other products. I know their attention to detail and desire to make incredible user experiences, and see their first efforts with Cover have met the high expectations I have for them. They're funded to the tune of $1.7 million from First Round Capital, and are just getting started.

Disclosures for Fun and Profit: Google is the provider of Android mobile OS and Google Now. Todd and Ed were both briefly colleagues of mine here at Google, and I worked with both during product integrations with my6sense during my time at Paladin Advisors Group.

January 07, 2014

Books Step Behind the Curtain of Tech's Leading Companies

Nearly three years ago, I made myself a public promise to stop buying books, CDs, DVDs, or basically any form of media that took up any space. (See: Physical Media Has To Go. I'm Digital Only From Here.) With media stores on practically every platform, whether you prefer Apple's, Google's or Amazon's, and streaming entertainment available from Spotify, Netflix and the aforementioned three, you can get just about anything you want straight to your computer, phone or tablet. So my all digital diet hasn't slowed me down a bit.

The end of 2013 brought us an unusual array of tales on technology going behind the public faces of some of technology's biggest names, including Apple, Google, Amazon and the newest $30 billion kid on the block, Twitter. So I spent a good amount of the holiday break taking in stories, with their own various embellishments, covering the challenges of building a mobile operating system at Google and Apple, the executive tug of war and pivot of Twitter, the focus on design in Jony Ive's laboratory, and how Amazon has craftily executed on its plan to become the single store for everything under the sun.

Taking in the tales of Silicon Valley companies is something I'll likely never get bored of, even if I'm covering the news as a blogger, living the news as an employee, or enjoying the benefits as an end user. So to get all four of these books at about the same time is an embarrassment of riches.

As I've read each of the books on Google Play, I've tried to be a good Web citizen and provide a rating and a short review. If we're connected on Google+ and you look at the book on Play, you'll probably see my take. If you aren't, or we haven't synched yet, here's a quick run through of what I thought on each title. Each title links to Google Play, where you can pick it up too.

Hatching Twitter (Author: Nick Bilton)

Review: "Many characters needed to make a mere 140. Politics over tech, and very public... similar to many startups that aren't quite under the microscope."

Expanding: As someone who's covered Twitter as a blogger for some time and used the service extensively for five years, I had hoped for more insight into how the Twitter team took on technology scaling challenges, worked through product decisions and managed the fast-growing community. Bilton focused primarily on the office drama at the highest levels, and the day to day challenges seem to happen practically invisibly. Also, as noted in my review, as a veteran of some challenging political environments in startups, the executive turnover is not unique to Twitter, but it's unusual for it to become so public, or for the company to survive even with the infighting.

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products (Author: Leander Kahney)

Review: "Good story. Very one sided. Jony is an exceptional mind working on high quality and highly desired products. The author recaps the highlights and approaches the subject as if Apple is infallible and perfect, which get tiresome. Jony is made out to be a deity. The truth is already incredible. The fable is not needed."

Expanding: Jony Ive and Apple make incredible products. The iPod and iPhone and iMac are great examples of that. I liked Jony's origin story and how he was forged in the UK before making his way to Cupertino. What I liked less was the over the top, breathless deification of Jony that went well beyond what I felt ws necessary. It was so sugary, one had to put the book down every few minutes until you could get enough strength to start again. That's no slight to Jony or Apple, of course.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Author: Brad Stone)

Review: "The best book on tech in 2013 An intriguing dissection and chronicling of a truly modern company's rise to market dominance."

Expanding: The story of Amazon was by far my favorite of this group. What's striking is the drive behind Jeff Bezos and team to take on incredible challenges, and just get it done. Amazon, through perseverance and ingenuity, skated through the hardest times in the Web 1.0 crash, and came out a world leader, starting new businesses and categories at a pace and scale hard to fathom. If you had to read just one of these four, I'd pick this one.

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution (Author: Fred Vogelstein)

Review: "Good stories and current! Only a few obvious inaccuracies, but well intended."

Expanding: This was a fun one, as someone who prefers Android to iOS, but has been a heavy user of both. As someone who knows some more color to much of the stories, I found some of the author's summaries and shortcuts to simply be wrong. I was mostly willing to forgive that, considering the book was entertaining and insightful. I only hope the parts that I liked were true. As a Googler, it actually gave me more knowledge about individuals on the team and their own efforts that I didn't have before, so I appreciated that.

If you're like me, and you live and breathe technology and the Silicon Valley, these four books are a great way to go beyond the day to day headlines and clickbait you see on the "news of the minute" sites. If you are an entrepreneur or even just an office drone like the rest of us, you could learn something, be it the why, or the how, but you can't say any of these books left you more lacking for knowledge at the end than when you started. So check 'em out - digitally.

Disclosures: Yes, I work at Google. Google makes Android and Google Play, and could be a partner or competitor to Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Spotify or Netflix, depending on which product or feature you're thinking about.

January 06, 2014

Feedshare.net Debuts for OPML, RSS Feed Swapping

Update: The previous version of this post said Brent Simmons, author of NetNewsWire, was also the author of FeedShare.net. Turns out I was very wrong! Arne Holzenburg was inspired by Brent's posts and did the work himself. Sorry about that, Arne and Brent!

While many people now get their news from social channels - making the feed subscription model seem rather quaint in a world surrounded by microupdates, RSS still plays an important role for those of us who never want to miss a single post.

One of the earliest tinkerers in RSS and the main coder behind the application which first got me addicted to feeds (See: RSS A Demanding Mistress), Brent Simmons, pointed to a retro OPML sharing service at Feedshare.net on to the Web, letting you share your news sources and find new sites through those posted from your peers. If you're starting to have flashbacks to 2006's Share Your OPML and 2008's Toluu (which debuted here), then that's because Feedshare.net performs essentially the same functionality - but unlike those other two sites, it actually still works here in 2014.

Share your OPML file on Feedshare.net

Arne Holzenburg, a frequent reader of Brent Simmons, like me, was inspired by Simmons' post Saturday that he lamented the lack of an OPML sharing service. Arne took the weekend and built Feedshare. You can find mine is at the expected URL: http://feedshare.net/louisgray/. You can walk through the list, get a direct link to the subscribed link, or hit Favorite to add it to your RSS reader of choice. Mine is Feedly.

Just the Feeds and Nothing but the Feeds.

To add your own OPML file to Feedshare.net, find your list of feeds in whatever RSS reader you use, and find where to export. Most make it pretty easy, which is one of the best things about supporting standards. Easy export, easy import. Take that OPML file and add it to Feedshare, and then tell people where they can find it. And maybe, if you tell enough people, your list will end up on Feedshare's popular page, which already has ten top participants.

That's it! You know what to do. Check out Feedshare.net, and if you've uploaded your OPML, share the link to your feeds and show me what sites I've been missing.

January 03, 2014

First Friday Feature: MightyText: Web and Gmail Texting App

For nearly three years now, the overwhelming majority of text messages I've exchanged with friends, family and colleagues haven't started with my phone, but instead, with my computer, thanks to the ever-improving application MightyText. MightyText links my browser (Chrome, obviously) to my Android phone, and lets me send and receive text messages, including photos and emoji from the Web, and even from Gmail. Considering how much time so many of us spend in our email, adding text messaging is a no-brainer.

If you're a long-time louisgray.com reader (and thanks, by the way), you might remember MightyText initially launched as a Chrome add-on, called Texty, in March of 2011. (See: Texty: Texts From Google Chrome Via My Android Phone) In later months, they rebranded to MightyText, gained visibility from the larger tech blogs about a year later and can now sport hundreds of thousands of users, measuring by their Chrome web store stats. Meanwhile, as their user base has swelled, so to has their feature set.

MightyText's Web UI.

From the very simple interface you can see in my original coverage, MightyText now is best experienced through their fullscreen Web UI, or integrated in Gmail. As I have the MightyText Chrome extension installed, my Chromebook alerts me, often before my phone does, that I have an incoming text or call. I can respond from that notification, from the website or from Gmail, and don't even have to pick up my phone to interrupt my workflow.

Seeing Recent Texts on MightyText in my Gmail.

From the MightyText site, I am greeted with a history of texts, synced with my phone, and the option to keep the conversation going. I can add images from local files on my computer, send emoji (in those rare times I'm feeling silly), and even walk through photos I've sent or received by MMS. And MightyText even has a Pro option for just over $2 a month which brings advanced settings, such as themes, deeper photo backup, group texting and a lot more.

Sending a MightyText with emoji to Maneesh Arora.

But one unsung hero (until now, I guess), is MightyText's companion extension Gtext (find it here). Gtext adds a "Compose SMS" button in my GMail next to where I'd start an email, and brings the same photo and text history from the MightyText site to the place where I already spark most my communication. So from Gmail, I can chat (with Hangouts of course), send SMS or email, all in one spot.

Browsing Recent Photos sent in Text in my Gmail

MightyText even has a tablet client. So I often find myself reading a book or browsing the Web on my Nexus 7, and even if my phone is in the other room, I can browse or send texts, just as easily, even without a 3G connection. So texting isn't something I have to do on one device. It's something I can do from every single device, all synced automatically, with real flexibility.

Awwww... Viewing A Photo I'm Adding to MightyText.

You might call it a New Year's resolution, but in 2014, I've decided to use the first Friday of each month to feature something I use every day - even if it's not brand new. MightyText gets the January 2014 honor. I'm happy to say they were first covered here, before anywhere else, and are a real and growing success story. If you're on Android, and you should be... definitely check it out.

Disclosures: Given I work at Google, I have a bias in favor of great products that include Android, Gmail and Chrome in their ecosystem. You might think about Hangouts possibly competing with MightyText, but I didn't let that get in my way now, did I?