Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Facebook will not build a New mobile Phone

In last two days there has been rumors of Facebook launching a mobile phone. I read about it in the newspaper (yeah! I am little old fashioned, I still read newspapers) and quickly dismissed it as a hype or a wrong interpretation of  Facebook's real intentions.

Coming from a hardware design background and with software product management experience and drawing from my experience and business knowledge, I can openly say that,  Facebook  has other ideas when it hired Apple engineers - and making mobile phones is not one of them.

To understand  Facebook  motives, one must really look at the  Facebook  business model: Build a social network, sell advertisements on it & make money. Really simple.

But there has been some clinks in the model.  Facebook  has so far not been able to generate revenue from the mobile platform. It is tough to sell advertisements on the mobile screen, and so far, Facebook has not been successful in doing so. It may be a deliberate strategy by  Facebook  to avoid monetizing of mobile platform - till the technology matures to a point.

Even Google has seen the business challenges of making money on the mobile platform. Though Google dominates the mobile search, the revenue of advetizements has been limited.

For Facebook, the problem is multifaceted. 

  • The recent IPO means that  Facebook will have to press hard on the revenue & profit levers to justify the high P/E levels for its stock price.
  • Facebook  was originally developed for the desktop platform & the world is going mobile.
  • Facebook's current mobile offerings suck. The iPhone app is just about OK, but on iPad it is bad, and on Android it sucks. 
  • Facebook  must evolve rapidly on the mobile platform to offer multiple services/utilities to stay relevant on the mobile platform. Currently, the mobile apps are nothing but downgraded versions of its desktop offerings.
  • Mobile platforms are rapidly evolving. So Facebook must constantly keep up the app development for multiple platforms: iPhone, Blackberry, Bada, Andriod, Windows, etc., to keep itself relevant and useful for its users.

Given the problems  Facebook  is facing on the mobile platform, the idea of developing new mobile phone hardware platform with its own OS is plain stupid.

In my opinion,  Facebook  will probably develop/acquire a mobile browser that works across all cell phone platforms. The key idea is to create a standardized browser layer on which Facebook's web applications will run.

The current mobile broswers are inadequate for the task. All the current browsers were designed for the desktop platform and then adapted for mobiles. What is really needed is a mobile web browser that is built ground up for the mobile platform - that provides a common platform or a agateway for all the  Facebook  functions. This will help  Facebook  break away from the task of creating multiple apps, maintaining it on multiple platforms etc.

Having a browser layer will give a level of abstraction and seperation for  Facebook  and that will help  Facebook  create new social networking services: Voice chat, image/video sharing, messaging, email, location specific social networks etc.

Closing Thoughts

Building a new mobile phone/platform is a bad idea. Designing successful hardware platform is very tough (ask Intel or Nokia), making money on hardware is even tougher (ask Sony, HP, Palm, Motorola, Philips etc).  Facebook  lacks hardware design expertise, supply chain management expertise and does not deal with service providers. So, given the facts that  Facebook  does not have all the necessary competence needed to build cell phones, I would bet that  Facebook has no intention to build a new mobile platform.

Instead, I think  Facebook  is hiring hardware engineers to understand how the basic hardware platforms work and then create a browser that operates much better than all the current mobile browsers.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Moving Beyond Virtualization - The Journey to the cloud

The main objective of enterprise IT systems today it to enable efficient execution of business process.  Greater the efficiency, greater the business advantage in terms of cost savings and faster responses to customer needs resulting be more business.

Today, enterprises have embraced virtualization as a means to achieve cost savings. The sever virtualization has led to significant savings in IT operations in terms of data center consolidation and are now embarking on the journey to improve business process efficiency that can achieved with cloud technology.

To improve business operational efficiency, enterprises must build IT systems that are highly efficient and flexible. To get there the desired benefits, there are four distinct steps:

1. Consolidation

Efficiency in IT systems can be achieved by virtualization and consolidation. Server virtualization (VMWare or Hyper-V) will help in reducing the number of physical servers, converged infrastructure or unified computing systems - such as VBLOCKs, Cisco UCS can help consolidated multiple (10-12) data centers into few (2-3) data centers. This consolidation will help lower operational costs: reduce energy consumption, office space, and IT management costs.

2. Automate IT Operations

Once data centers are consolidated, the management of the data centers should be centralized and automated. Common IT operations such as infrastructure monitoring, system provisioning, compliance checks, security monitoring, network management, data management (backup/restore, disaster recovery, etc.) must be automated. Today, enterprises are building self service portals for system provisioning which cuts down the time and efforts need for  IT infrastructure sizing and design - from weeks to minutes. Automated systems can detect faults and initiate DR plans on the fly. EMC VPLEX along with VMWare's vMotion is a classic example of a completely automated disaster recovery system.

IT Operations management software automates redundant, repetitive IT tasks, integrates those tasks into a single group of common services: Availability/Performance services, or storage services, or security services, etc. A common web based dashboards are created to provide a dashboard view of how those integrated tasks are performing.  From these dashboards, services can be monitored and controlled through a single consolidated system management center from where corrective actions can be taken if needed.

Automating IT Operations helps business operations in two main ways:

1. Reduces the cost of managing & operating the IT system - which has a direct impact on the bottom line.

2. Improves business effectiveness by allowing business managers see how much IT resources they are consuming & it is costing the business. This helps business users to better allocation of resources - via self-provisioning.  

By automating IT operations with a virtualized, self-provisioning infrastructure, a web based service delivery systems can be built which give enormous flexibility to business operations. Business operations will no longer be constrained by physical barriers and locations.

3. Manage Workloads

Workload management is still evolving. The intelligent loadbalancers today from F5 networks or A10 Loadbalancers can manage server pools, move workloads across server clusters, power up/down servers based on the active workloads. Active loadbalancing with VMWare vCloud Director, vCenter along with SDN (software Defined Networks) and Unified storage systems (EMC VNX & VNXe) are setting the base foundation for workload management.

Workload management helps improve IT systems utilization - which helps to reduce costs, and increases business operational flexibility.

4. Optimize service delivery 

Iaas, SaaS, DaaS are the common terms today for service delivery. IT organizations are creating several types of services to business, which helps business operations the flexibility and salability as needed. Business operations are now more responsive to customers and have the ability to scale up/down based on market conditions without incurring heavy costs.

Amazon, for example is able to scale up retail sales for the peak Christmas season, while other retailers struggle.

Apple is able to meet the sudden surge in demand of the new iPad or for iPhone 4S - mainly because they have built a scalable, flexible supply chain - which is managed by their efficient IT systems.

Closing Thoughts

Virtualization is not the end, it is the new beginning for a new way if IT operations. In the new world, IT operations will be lean, efficient, and scalable - giving strategic advantage to business operations by lowering cost of operations, increasing flexibility and salability of business.

Is the Cloud the right form of Data Storage?

Today there are several vendors offering cloud based file storage: Google DriveDropBox  , Microsoft Sky Drive, Apple iCloud, SugarSync, Mega Cloud etc. These cloud services are built for individual users or small businesses. The world media is going all out to promote the cloud technology, and all the high tech companies are going ga-ga about cloud technology.

As an early adopter of technologies, I have been using DropBox for years, and iCloud for sometime. After using these cloud based storage offerings, I have come to a different conclusion.  To me, (and for most users) there are lot of challenges & issues with the cloud data storage.

For the most part, users will never think of the hidden issues with the cloud. Occasionally we come across an article about privacy issues with Facebook. But that was just the small tip of the huge hidden iceberg.

The iceberg I am referring to is called "data deletion".

In the good old days before computers, people had data in form of books or diaries or paper files. This was protected in shelves or cabinets. When the owner of the files/data wanted to get rid of it, he/she could destroy it - by shredding it into pieces or burning it. In this world, a destroyed file was truly deleted.

But now in the Internet era, a file which gets uploaded into the cloud - gets copied in several locations. The files also get backed up and archived, so when the user deletes the file - is the file truly deleted? Are all copies of the file in the cloud deleted?

Currently, that is not the case. The data in the cloud tends to live forever.

Imagine a scenario where a bunch of young kids go out on a spring break, get drunk, and do all sorts of crazy things, and  upload the videos/photos of it on Internet. After the "crazy" spring break vacation, they get back into their senses and delete the video/photos. Later in their lives, say 30 years after that incident, one of the persons in the group stands for an election. In the heat of an highly contested election, the old "deleted" files pop up - ruining the chances of the person winning any election.

This snare is 100% possible. The data in the cloud is not being deleted. A copy of that data/file can exist in some archive.

This problem brings up two interesting issues with the cloud:

1. How to delete data in the cloud?
2. Who owns the deleted files?

The current rules and regulation do not impose any mandate on file deletion. In fact all the current rules and regulations do the opposite - ensure that the data /files are not deleted. Most companies do not have an active Information Life Cycle systems, so the emails I wrote a decades ago are still stored in some tape or drive.

Even when the user deletes the data, the files can exist in some archive tapes, from which some can access it. (yes, the data is supposed to be encrypted, but with time, technology advances that today's encryption technology can be easily broken in future).

So when someone accesses your "deleted" data, do you have any right over it?

Adding to the complexity of the issue, the cloud data storage spans across national boundaries. And that raises another question - which country's law is applicable? What is the jurisdiction of the courts?

The legal complexities associated with the cloud are enormous (see: Big Legal Risks with Cloud Computing.)

Data/File ownership rights are not clear and there are no laws to protect the users.

So in a nutshell, cloud data storage posses enormous risks. So use cloud storage with caution. Never post images, home videos, or sensitive files on the cloud. I use cloud storage as a scratch space, which I can afford to loose and has no significant value and does not contain any personal information.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Are Smart Watches ready for Prime time?

Watch, An ubiquitous time telling device has remained static for last century. There has been few sporadic attempts to extend the digital revolution to watches.  Casio made digital watches with calculators, Watches with Radio, Watches with TV - but all these attempts created a small niche for multifunction digital watches - but the good old mechanical watches still ruled the world.

Now in 2012, Android powered smart watches are making a foray - with Sony, Motorola and host of other vendors trying their best to promote smart watches - i.e., a new generation smart watches that are nothing but stripped down versions of smart phones - with smaller screens and with limited functionality.

But are smart watches ready for prime time? 

Since the prime audience for smart watches already have smart phones, do users want one more device to check their emails, or to tweet or to update their facebook status?

As an early adapter of technology, I looked at Sony Smart Watch (shown in the picture) At the first look, it was attractive, the screen size of ~1 sq inch (like iPod nano), four icons on the home screen, plus a default watch screen.

But the real value can be found with usage - more appropriately what customers will use the smart watch for? Will customers use the smart watches for other things than telling time?

Strangely, the first generation smart watches are designed for a mobile - albeit with a smaller screen, lessor memory and CPU to conserve power. Battery management system in the smart phones is copied from smart phones and that idea itself is killer for smart watches!

How many times do you like to sneak on your watch to see a "Blank" screen? Do you really want to touch the screen to see the time?

I guess not!

The first thing people want from their watches is to see the time! So having a blank screen is akin to shooting on your own foot - while starting to run a marathon race.

Leading Smart Watches

Sony is probably the first big entrant into Smart watch business, but there are several others. I'm Watch is the other noteworthy competitor to Sony.

But there are a host of other vendors: inPulse, Fossil Metawatch & others. Surprisingly, none of the traditional watch companies have introduced any smart watches - not even Casio!

What does the Smart Watch do?

All the smart watches use the software designed for smart phones - and hence have a legacy of mobile apps: email, SMS, Music, Radio, Internet, weather, facebook, twitter, images etc.

Please note that the smart watch is not very convenient to read emails or SMS or to read your facebook wall - but those 'popular' functions are available on the watch.

Surprisingly, none of the smart watch websites describe how their smart watches make it easier to tell date and time! May be its a hint that these smart watches are designed to do a whole lot of other functions than just tell time. ( And if you want to know just the time - you are better off with a Timex! )

In other words, the first generation smart watches are pretty much useless in terms of what you can do with it. A person must be really be dumb to walk around with a smart watch. To me its akin to wearing a dunce cap that loudly says "Look at me, I am a gullible idiot to buy a smart watch."

I do not intend to dismiss the smart watches. I believe there will be a whole of interesting and exciting uses for smart watches - but those apps or use cases have not yet been developed yet.

What do I like to see in the ultimate Smart watch?

Current generation smart watches are  useless.

But I look at the current smart watches in the same way as a new born baby - both the baby and the watch cannot do anything much, both seek your constant attention for food or battery charging. Apart from showing it off to the whole world there is nothing you can do of real value with a smart watch.

But it has a very promising future.

The good old "expensive" mechanical watches (Omega, Rolex, Tissot, etc) will give way to smart devices.

To begin with, every smart watch should have the following functions:

1. Hey watch! Be Smart.

A smart watch must be Smart. Most watches are simple output devices - they just tell time. A smart watch must be just as simple to use. The inherent smartness of the watch should take care of all operational issues.  This sounds too simple. But in the smart world, simple things are often very tough.

A smart watch should never require any charging. It should be able to charge itself.

Smart watch must get its power from ambient sources: light, heat motion or radio signals. One must never have to "remember" to charge the watch.

A smart watch should never be told what is the time. It should be able to automatically determine the local time/date and display it.

Basic necessities such as: Water proof, all weather proof must be there.

Smart watch must be multi-lingual, i.e, ability to display time/date in multiple languages.

Smart upgrades. User must never have to upgrade the software to prevent malware and hacks. It must be done without user intervention in the background.

2. Look Mom: "No wires"

All smart devices are loaded with wired interfaces. On a watch connecting a wire is a hassle. Therefore there should be no wires. All connections must be wireless: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc

Wires are a lousy way to connect to any device - just get rid of all wires!

3. Wake up Grandma - you forgot to take your sleeping pills.

Watches is an "i" device, develop apps that are specific to the individual. For example app to monitor heart rate, body temperature etc. and other health apps. With an aging population in US, Japan & Europe, the ability to integrate with other medical devices will be a very valuable function.

Smart watch must have basic functions such as health reminders, health recording functions etc. One can also set up the watch to remotely sync up with office calendar and send meeting and appointment alerts.

Smart watch can also be one's personal MP3 player, Radio, Video player etc. One should be able to load music remotely over cloud services.

Personalizable. Users can set the home screens, color screens etc, display formats etc.

4. "Beam me up Scotty"

Well we are not exactly there yet. But everytime I step out into Bangalore traffic, I feel the need for the Star Trek's transporter. But then I am willing to settle for the next best thing - smart watch with traffic advisory services & locational services.

Locational services will be key function. Getting to know where the watch is will also determine where the person is. So it can be used to keep track of your family members or help them with driving directions etc.

With a smart watch one must be able to find the best way back home and one will never get lost with a smart watch.

5. Dick Tracy's communicator.

Smart watch is not just a watch. It is a life saver. Watch should be able to communicate emergency information over to emergency services. Voice based 911 dialing etc. Ability to communicate during emergency will be a big life saver.

Wireless Internet and VoIP technology will also help people talk to each other with their watches. I agree that watch is not the best communicator device, but then Dick Tracy was always able to talk to Lizz with his phone.

6. James Bond's secret weapon.

In the movie Moonraker - James Bond wears a watch which also doubles as a gun.

Spy functions on the watch such as Camera to take discreet photos, voice recorders, projector video recorders, data storage, hidden explosives. The list is limited by your imagination.

Not everyone will need these functions - but then there are power users like Mr. Bond who will need it - after all this is the smart watch!

Closing Thoughts

Smart watches are here to stay. The challenge is - how soon companies can make smart watches relevant to users and make them adopt to it. Pricing of smart watches is not an issue - people today buy expensive "Swiss" watches. People can afford it, but will the embrace it?