Archive

Archive for the ‘The Tech Biz’ Category

What I’ve been up to

June 1st, 2008

My posting volume has been pretty light since late last year. A large fraction of my energy has been devoted to my now-not-so-new job. I’ve posted some thoughts on my first 10 months at AdMob over at the AdMob blog. We’ll be posting a lot more there about what AdMob engineering is up to. I suspect that the posting volume here will remain light. Work isn’t going to get any less absorbing any time soon. And we have a baby coming in August.

The Tech Biz

Death Match: Handset versus PC?

November 8th, 2007

This is the second week in a row that a TWiT podcast has motivated me to blog. At one point in this week’s show the panel started discussing this question: is mobile killing the PC? By and large the TWiTs didn’t think so, and I even sort-of agree with them. Here’s my not-too-brief response to the question:

What’s interesting to me is how these two technology platforms are co-evolving, and what’s unique about each. In my mind the useful distinctions between handsets and PCs are the obvious: interaction mechanics and availability.

Interaction Mechanics

By interaction mechanics I mean methods of input and output, and what these methods make feasible or infeasible. For example, any device that you use with one hand or cradled in two can’t have a full-size keyboard. [Yes, there are full-sized bluetooth and laser-projected keyboards for handhelds, but you don't use either with one hand or cradled in two, so I'm not counting them.] Ergonomics and human physiology both conspire against authoring long pieces of textual content using small keyboards.

You could write a 100,000 word novel on your Blackberry, but you had better hope that your insurance pays for treatment of the crippling RSI that will result. Until we have really great voice recognition or some sci-fi-ish mind-machine interface on handsets, we’re stuck with small keyboards, and the relatively short works of authorship (short e-mails, twitters, short blog posts, SMSs, etc.) that are feasible with them.

A similar principle applies to screens. Handsets can’t have the big screens of PCs. Until the magic day when someone figures out how to project high-resolution information from short distances across a typical human’s field of vision, we’re stuck with screens that can fit in your hand / pocket / belt holster / purse. The iPhone screen is probably right at the size limit for handset form factors. Sure, resolution will get better and better over time. But that doesn’t really increase the amount of perceivable information you can put on a small screen, just the quality of how the information is presented.

That said, you can feasibly consume an awful lot of different types of content on a good small screen like the iPhone’s. For most textual content, like web pages, the issue with handset presentation is one of formatting, not of screen size. Formatting is a solvable problem. With video, I find that the iPhone’s screen is plenty big with high enough resolution and refresh rate to prevent serious eyestrain even when watching hour-long content.

There are some forms of content and interaction that do require a big screen, e.g., programming, serious video editing, watching movies with others, etc., where having lots of pixels for displaying content really matters, and that consequently are going to be infeasible to do on handsets in the foreseeable future. All told though, small screens seem to less of a limitation on what can be done with handsets than small keyboards.

Availability

Mobile handsets are designed to be…well…mobile. You carry the device around with you all the time. The convenience of this high availability sometimes trumps the convenience of superior interaction mechanics even when you have the choice between the two. For instance, when my wife and I are watching a movie in our living room, both of us have our mobile handsets within reach. We’ll often check our e-mail and make quick responses on our mobiles rather than getting up to go to our desktop Macs, or even to pop open a laptop which may be sitting just as close to us as our mobiles.

This is the really cool thing about mobile handsets. They are communication and content consumption devices that are always on, always connected, and always available. Despite small keyboards and screens, more and more types of communication and content consumption are possible all the time on mobiles. Couple that with the overwhelming convenience of availability, and yes, mobiles are going to steal a huge number of eyeball hours away from PCs. In countries where mobile devices and networks are more sophisticated than in the US–for example, Japan–the trend of spending less time on PCs and more time on mobiles is already noticeable. And the gap is widening rapidly.

I don’t think that this means the death of the PC. In fact, I don’t think that this is an either or scenario.

What I as a consumer want to see is more services like Google Reader, Google Calendar, etc., where I can get at my content on either PC or mobile. The line is already blurring between PC and mobile in terms of both communication and content consumption. My choice between the two in the future will largely be dictated by whichever is most readily at hand. Most of the time that will be my mobile.

I don’t see my mobile becoming the creative instrument that the PC is. For instance, as a programmer and writer, I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to give up my Linux boxes or Macs or my full-sized, ergonomic keyboard in favor of a mobile.

At the end of day (or blog post) though: in the war to capture as much consumer attention as possible, mobile handsets, in my humble opinion, are going to dominate the PC. This sea change is coming soon too, so hold on. It’s going to be an interesting and fun ride. :-)

The Tech Biz

Microsoft’s investment in Facebook

November 5th, 2007

I was listening to last week’s This Week in Tech and the subject of Microsoft’s investment in Facebook came up. The consensus among the TWiTs was that this was a stupid move by Microsoft. The wide-held theory is that Facebook pages don’t monetize well and that Microsoft can’t be making money on the deal. Who knows? That’s pure speculation unless you’re a Microsoft or Facebook insider. What is not speculation is the following:

  1. $240M is not that much money for a company with quarterly revenue of $13.7B and quarterly net income of almost $4.3B. Did I mention that’s quarterly revenue and income?
  2. Even if the deal isn’t profitable now, it gets Microsoft an exclusive look at real data and the opportunity to build tech that could improve monetization on Facebook pages and on other social network content like Facebook’s. Rather than casting about in the dark trying to build a system that monetizes social content well, they’ve paid a relatively paltry sum for a 100M user, in vivo focus group. If Microsoft can get the technology right–and it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will given the technical complexity of the problem–the opportunity in social content advertising just in terms of eyeballs and page views on Facebook and other potential MS partners is HUGE.
  3. Perhaps most cleverly, investing $240M at a $15B valuation is a pretty cheap way for Microsoft to test the waters while making Facebook prohibitively expensive (given their current putative revenue) for potential acquirors.

IMO, investing this money in Facebook is one of the smarter deals I’ve seen Microsoft do in a while.

The Tech Biz

FYI

July 21st, 2007

Starting Monday, I will be Vice President of Engineering at admob. I’ve been quite busy the past few weeks wrapping up obligations at my previous employer and getting ready to start at admob. This is the main reason that posting has been light.

I’ve got two big drafts that I’m hoping to tune up and post this weekend. Both are on the profession of computing, specifically trying to debunk some of the gloom-and-doom we’ve all been hearing over the years about the demise of the American programmer. To summarize: demand for computing professionals is higher now than ever; the domestic job market is fan-friggin-tastic and off-shoring is largely a myth; and computing in and of itself is wonderfully stimulating and a very rewarding profession. More soon…

The Tech Biz

Pownce and the Lightweight Webapp

June 28th, 2007

Kevin Rose, founder of digg, has just launched a new service. It’s called Pownce and is designed to help you broadcast small bits of data (notes, links, pictures, etc.) to groups of people. Valleywag promptly panned Pownce claiming that it wasn’t useful and that it was YASN (yet another social network.)

So, Pownce might not be useful to Tim Faulkner, the guy who wrote the article. I, on the other hand, think that is useful. I even considered building exactly the same thing just for me and my friends. It would save us time, help to unclog our inboxes from the redundant links we send to each other all the time, and give us a more convenient archive of the little tidbits we thought were important enough to broadcast to each other.

Truthfully though, neither my opinion nor Tim Faulkner’s really matter here.

We live in a world where apps like Pownce are super cheap to build, launch, and operate. My Pownce-like app was going to take a couple of weekends to implement. I would have hosted it on my own server which costs me less than a daily latte at Starbucks. That server has more than enough capacity to scale a pownce-like app to my network of friends and to their first-order networks–almost certainly with plenty of headroom to spare.

Even if Pownce is an abject failure, the founding team is out virtually nothing in terms of operating costs or invested time. Probably the most valuable thing they lose in the total failure scenario is the opportunity to have done something cooler with their time and energy.

I doubt that Pownce will be a total failure. In my opinion, it has the potential to be very popular. My friends and I will almost certainly use it. Even if it is only middling popular though, say 1M page views per day, operating costs will still be next to nothing, and the ads income from that traffic could make the partners more money per year than they could earn as software developers at most places. If it is wildly popular…well…then the founding team could get rich.

We live in wonderful times.

The Tech Biz