Dec 06

Blackberry 8800: Duh… make two different models

The Blackberry is the best smartphone currently available. Period. If you’ve ever used a Treo, Motorola Q, and a Blackberry, you know this. There’s no point in even debating it. That being said, there are a few things that have been missing from the Blackberry that everyone else has, like a built-in camera, for example. There’s a reason for this, however. Since Blackberry is the dominant platform among big business and government they’ve been reluctant to include anything that could compromise security or even create this perception…like a built-in camera or removable storage.

One of the biggest selling points for the Blackberry is that it’s an integrated hardware-software solution. In other words, Research in Motion develops both the hardware and the software, rather than just making the device you could run Windows Mobile on a la the Motorola Q. This makes the Blackberry very stable and usable. Another cool thing about the Blackberry from the standpoint of large organizations is that they can be remotely wiped (like if you lost it) and each functional piece of the device can be locked down by the admin. In some organizations, you might disable web browsing or copy/pasting, for example. Even though each piece can be locked down, Blackberry couldn’t just release an enterprise-level version that came ONLY with a camera as they did with the prosumer-targeted Pearl. This could potentially alienate large, security-conscious customers who want mobile email, but don’t want anyone taking photos and leaking stuff they shouldn’t. So, with the Blackberry 8800 slated for Spring 2007 release they came up with the perfect solution: make two models of the same device. One with a camera, one without. Genius!

This makes me very glad since I want both a camera and the full-qwerty keyboard available on the 8800. And as someone who owns a few shares of RIMM, I also don’t want them to drive off large government contracts.

As an aside, I have to say that RIMM’s management has really been doing a great job. They’re crushing the competition and releasing great products.

Sep 06

The fickle real estate market

It seems like most Americans are ill-equipped to deal with the vagaries of real estate. This does not bode well considering the high cost of an investment that can run several hundred thousands of dollars. From the NY Times: It Seemed Like a Good Bet at the Time:

One such owner, who requested anonymity rather than risk the embarrassment of exposing a financial blunder, bought a house in Port St. Lucie, Fla., as an investment in April of last year and financed the $410,000 purchase with an ARM, with an introductory rate of nearly 7 percent. The loan was an afterthought, since he expected to sell the house almost immediately for a profit. He didn’t, and now the developer recently sold a similar house in the neighborhood for $325,000.

“I just didn’t know what I was doing, and I shouldn’t have done it,” said the man, who does not have enough equity in the house to refinance and who will run out of money to pay the mortgage in 10 months. “Maybe the Lord will send a miracle.”

Presumably, the best time to buy real estate is when everyone else is losing their shirts, not when everyone is talking about all the quick money to be had. With houses as with stocks, buy when everyone else is selling, sell when everyone else is buying.

Jul 06

NCSoft Layoffs

NCSoftIt was announced last week that the US branch of NCSoft laid off 20% of its workforce. Following the rule in the game industry, most of the cuts hit the Customer Support staff who exist in perpetual precariousness having neither the skills nor the job responsibilities valued by the industry. In the game industry, customer support is regarded at best as a necessary expense to supplement the end product and retain subscriptions. The view is often that Customer Service rarely creates direct value commensurate with its expense. Also, if you have two failing products, you are not going to require as much support to support them.

The layoff was a necessity given NCSoft America’s failure to follow the success of 2004’s Lineage 2 (Produced by NCSoft Korea) and City of Heroes (Produced by Cryptic Studios) with a high quality product. City of Villains did not capitalize on the success of its predecessor as it failed to create a sense of a true upgrade, which is what most people expect from a sequel. Auto Assault, on the other hand, was just a bad idea. With Auto Assault, the concept and the execution were weak throughout the project. Auto Assault was just a weak idea with a bad end result. The major mistake represented by Auto Assault is that its creators did not get the MMORPG genre. MMORPG’s are games that require the player to feel like they’re “inside” the game universe. Since the game requires you to remain in the vehicle 90% of the time played from a third-person point of view, it does not create this feeling of immersion.

It is my opinion that the problem with NCSoft is one of leadership. Not bad leadership, but tepid leadership resulting from confusing arrangements with the Korean parent other structural problems like a casual local heirarchy and relationships with contracted studios. Leadership is a difficult thing to improve, but I have a few suggestions:

  1. Separate the business from the creative. NCSoft excels at distribution, marketing, PR, QA, and support. In the business of selling and supporting games, they do very well. With a few caveats they have the business side down pat, which is a testament to the solid leadership of Robert Garriott, their current CEO. On the other hand, they are lackluster when it comes to the creative, strategic thinking required to be a successful game company. Possibly owing to the age of their leadership and the Korean business culture which seeps in from the parent company, NCSoft tends to be too conservative and risk-averse. This hobbles them in two respects. One, they have trouble seeing and taking on big ideas (Guild Wars is the main exception to this since it possesses a truly novel business model wherein the player need not subscribe to the game. ). They spend a lot of time trying to do what (for the most part) has been done, making improvements incrementally. Two, the fact they are risk-averse makes them unwilling or unable to cut projects that are clearly of low quality such as Auto Assault. They continue to pour money into projects they know have little chance of success because they cannot accept the reality of a bad decision. This hurts the brand and the bottom line since it creates doubt in the mind of the consumer. This unwillingness to reverse bad decisions also injures the morale of the company. It shakes the faith of the various teams who work closely on projects because they know that if a project starts to go downhill no one will be there to handle the crisis until it’s too late. I would suggest replacing whoever is in charge of product development and splitting them off from the more tactical corporate structure. It might even help to combine operations for Asia and US/Europe into one unit with NCSoft America responsible for Western creative initiatives.
  2. Move NCSoft Austin to Silicon Valley. NCSoft should consider a move for a few reasons. For one thing, Austin is not a hub for game development. In Austin, NCSoft is worlds away from its partners and competitors on the West Coast. Silicon Valley is a hot bed for the software and video game industry. Relocating there will allow NCSoft to tap into the energy and resources of the area and will help them to stay abreast of developments in the larger game industry. The West Coast is where most of the key players are located and they feed off each other. Unfortunately, Austin will continue to be a frontier outpost and, as such, a footnote in the game industry. Another reason to move to Silicon Valley is to facilitate better ties with the Korean parent company. It’s still far enough away to maintain some independence, but close enough to make travel and cooperation easier.
  3. Get long-term and long-term focus. NCSoft really has to focus on the long-term success of the company by taking on large, measurable goals which are communicated throughout the company. I think too many times they get caught up in the milestone mindset of only focusing on the next goal, which is 6-12 months out. There needs to be real discussion on the long-term strategy of the company. Are they going to try to produce the next World of Warcraft? Or, will they focus on smaller titles or console games? They have to spend more time planning the direction of the company or they’ll spend most of their time trying to keep up with the competition. Plan the direction and the goals, then put the different pieces together. One thing I would like to see is a more cohesive brand. For example, when you play a Blizzard game you know who you’re dealing with. Everything they do supports their overall approach and is easily identifiable. NCSoft should take the same approach and work harder to support a larger strategy.

NCSoft has taken an important step in making the unpleasant decision to reduce staff, however let’s hope they apply the same difficult decision-making to the rest of their business, starting with some soul searching at the top.

May 06

Hank Paulson is new Secretary of Treasury

In a huge nod to Wall Street, Bush nominates Goldman Sachs’ Henry “Hank” Paulson for Secretary of the Treasury. This is about as high profile a cabinet pick as you can get as Paulson is one of the most well known and respected captains of finance. This follows on the heels of the high profile selection of Fox talking head, Tony Snow, for White House spokesman. It looks like Bush is signalling the business world (rather obviously) that he may need their help to keep the wheels on.

I found this quote, which in this context is rather interesting:

“The thing I learned in Washington is that just as important, or more so, as what you do is who you do it with.” -Hank Paulson, CEO Goldman Sachs

May 06

The Father Factor

On the Father Factor:

In “The Father Factor,” Stephan Poulter lists five styles of fathers — super-achieving, time bomb, passive, absent and compassionate/mentor — who have powerful influences on the careers of their sons and daughters.

Children of the “time-bomb” father, for example, who explodes in anger at his family, learn how to read people and their moods. Those intuitive abilities make them good at such jobs as personnel managers or negotiators, he writes.

But those same children may have trouble feeling safe and developing trust, said Poulter, a clinical psychologist who also works with adolescents in Los Angeles area schools.

“I’ve seen more people hit their heads on what they call a glass ceiling or a cement wall in their careers, and it’s what I call the father factor,” Poulter said in an interview. “What role did your father have in your life? It’s this unknown variable which has this huge impact because we’re all sons and daughters.”

Styles of fathering can affect whether their children get along with others at work, have an entrepreneurial spirit, worry too much about their career, burn out or become the boss, Poulter writes.

Even absent fathers affect how their children work, he writes, by instilling feelings of rejection and abandonment.

Apr 06

Solutions to Laptop Theft

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story recently on an increase in laptop theft in San Francisco coffee houses. One victim was stabbed in the chest for his laptop during a recent robbery.

Lynch said people working on the high-priced computers are easy targets. “You walk by any Starbucks and you see people with a laptop, it’s so tempting for the crooks. They walk in, right on top of the person, and the person has all their attention on the laptop. They snatch it right out from underneath their fingertips. ‘

It’s surprising that there aren’t more incidents of laptop theft considering how expensive laptops can be, especially a nice Mac with titanium case and 17″ LCD. There are tons of people out there who walk around with thousands of dollars in their bags: laptops, ipods, digicams, etc. Luckily, there are a couple of options out there to help prevent laptop theft:

  • Get a laptop cable lock. Lock down your laptop with a cable lock that snaps into a specially designed loop on most laptops. Then loop the cable around something that can’t be moved. Unless thieves threaten you with body violence this is a good solution since it actually prevents theft.
  • Install Laptop Lojack. There’s a company called Computrace that makes a product by the name of Lojack for Laptops. They even licensed the name and everything. The idea behind it is simple: as soon as your laptop is stolen, you call the police to file a police report then you call Computrace and they set your laptop into “I’ve been stolen” mode. Basically, once the stolen laptop is connected to the Internet it sends notifications back to Computrace that help pinpoint its location by using the IP address, which is tied to your physical address. Computrace then notifies the police with information sufficient to serve as a search warrent. This is a good solution unless the thief wipes the hard drive before he connects to the Internet. Computrace has partnered with Lenovo, the maker of IBM Thinkpads, which now include the Computrace software on the actual BIOS chip. So, even if the hard-drive is wiped the software is still able to run and report back when stolen. Eventually all laptops could include something like this. Computrace claims that 90% of the laptops its customers report lost or stolen are either recovered or the data on them is destroyed using remote commands.
  • For Mac Users: Orbicule Undercover. Orbicule makes a similar program called Undercover that dials home when the laptop has been stolen. It also features support for iSight if you have a built-in webcam and will take snapshots of the thief. One interesting feature is that it simulates a hardware failure by gradually darkening the screen. The hope is that if the laptop is sent to Apple for repairs and connects to the Internet while at Apple, Undercover will detect the network settings and launch a special screen with instructions on how to return the stolen laptop to its rightful owner. It’s a novel approach, but who knows how well that works.

Apr 06

Cheap Human Capital With Amazon’s Mechanical Turk

Some time last fall, Amazon launched a service called Mechanical Turk. The name comes from a well-known illusion:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelens “Turk” was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinets doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a human chess master cleverly concealed inside. (From What is Amazon Mechanical Turk?)

The idea behind Mechanical Turk is simple. It’s artificial, artificial intelligence. If you recruit human beings to do tasks that would otherwise require expensive software development it is more efficient and you ensure greater accuracy in the result. Simple tasks like image recognition can be performed easily by human beings and not at all easily by image recognition software. Here’s how it works: on the mturk site there is a listing of available HITs. A HIT is any task that needs to be performed whether it be writing descriptions, adding metadata, or image recognition and matching. Normally, the easier the HIT, the less the reward there will be for completing it. The most common types of HITs involve matching street-level photographs with their corresponding address. These normally have a reward of $.03 for the completion of each HIT. The most likely goal of this type of task is to help improve the accuracy of results for Amazon’s street-level mapping program through A9. Since Amazon has a long way to go to document every street in every city in every country in the world, these types of HIT’s will probably remain the most common. It’s a huge endeavor since the photographic data for these results will also need to be updated as businesses relocate from time to time.

When the mturk service first launched, I clicked through about 2,000 sets of street address images with an accuracy rating of 85% (according to Amazon) in a week’s time. Completing image HIT’s is the kind of thing you can do while on the phone or surfing the internet. Just leave the Window up and chew through 20 or 30 at a time. Since you’re looking at street level photos of cities like Portland and San Francisco it’s almost like taking a weird, boring vacation. Judging from the hundreds of photos I clicked through, Philadelphia looks like an interesting place to visit.

For each successful HIT completion, 85% of that 2,000, I got three pennies deposited in my Amazon account for a total of around $50. Once the HIT’s are completed and passed to your account, you are free to transfer the funds to your bank account. It’s a horribly boring and monotonous way to make money, but it works pretty well. After that first week as mturk became more well-known, the easy HIT’s dried up as human click bots around the world vied for the easy pennies. Now it’s so competitive (three cents is a lot of money to people in the Third World) that there’s no point in even bothering with it. You’re unlikely to get the large pools of easy HIT’s that were once available. It is, however, an amazing experiment in piecing out tasks to the global masses that no employee is going to want to spend their day doing.

Here is the coolest part. Amazon is now making this service available to other companies and individuals through their Requester program. This allows anyone to offer tasks to the mturk masses. Need some cheap market research? Send it to mturk and have your survey completed for $.01 a head. That’s 1,000 survey results for ten bucks. Other companies are paying for podcast transcription services at cut rate prices of $5-$10 per podcast. Transcription is an obvious winner for this type of service, but other services could include translation, editing / proofreading, OCR / handwriting, and content analysis. There are built-in mechanisms to ensure quality results. Before you can volunteer for more advanced jobs like transcription, you are often required to take a qualification test, which is prepared by the Requester. The other mechanism that ensures quality is simple, if the Requester is not satisfied with the result, they do not have to accept and pay for it. Companies like Hit Builder are springing up to build software and services for Requesters to streamline the process of using mturk. This is an idea that could really take off. As the broker between its army of mechanical Turks and companies who need human capital, Amazon could stand to make some serious money, but only if more companies start using it.

Apr 06

Hierarchies and networks

How to tap your company’s hidden network: Forget the IT network. It’s a company’s human infrastructure that really determines whether it lives or dies:

Woe to the person who doesn’t understand the trust network in his or her company, she tells the generals, whose attention is now becoming more focused. Ignore this hidden structure and your quality team players will jump ship, mentors will abandon their charges, institutional memory will vanish, and glad-handing schmucks will weasel their way into power. But if you fathom how your company really works, you can identify and reward your most valuable employees and unearth innovative ideas.

Stephenson is a leader in the growing field of social-network business consultants. As happens today with the generals, her ideas usually manage to command attention. Anyone who has worked in any organization knows there’s at least some truth to what she says.

Humans are primates, after all, and we groom each other through sharing information. Organizations are constantly abuzz with thousands of shared confidences, whispered at the water cooler or between buddies in the bowling league. Taken together, those communications make up a kind of dark matter of corporate culture–an unseen force that has significant influence on whether everything holds together or flies apart.

I think many of us can identify with this:

And yet Stephenson, despite her faith in the power of social networks, has a confession to make. “The truth is that with all my talk of networks, I’m really a closet hierarchist,” she says. “I like hierarchies because they’re clear. Nothing is ever totally clear in a social network because they’re always in motion.”

Which might explain why Stephenson so enjoys working alone. “There is no clearer hierarchy than a business of one,” she says. “I’m free, and I can’t tell you how happy I am.”

Feb 06

Start saving now

Please read this. Very interesting numbers coming out, indicative of inflation and potential recession. Pay down your debts, start saving at least 10% per check, cut up the credit cards:

The government reported last week that consumers last year spent all they earned and then some, pushing the personal savings rate into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent.

The savings rate has only been negative for a full year twice before, in 1932 and 1933, when Americans were struggling with huge job layoffs during the Great Depression.

The Fed report showed that the increase last year in credit card debt and other types of revolving credit was just 2.6 percent, the smallest in 23 years.

Analysts said some of that slowdown reflected that fact that Americans have stepped up borrowing through home equity loans rather than increasing credit card debt.

The increase in auto loans and other types of nonrevolving debt was 3.2 percent last year, the smallest rise since a decline of 1.24 percent in 1992.

For December, credit card debt and other revolving debt fell by 1.4 percent at an annual rate while auto loans and other types of nonrevolving debt rose at a rate of 3.8 percent, reflecting a rebound in auto sales during the month.

The 1.9 percent rate of growth in consumer credit for December translated into an annual increase of $3.35 billion, pushing total consumer debt to an annual level of $2.161 trillion.

That was slightly below the all-time high of $2.164 trillion set in September, a level that reflected large car sales during the summer months as automakers offered attractive sales incentives.

Jan 06

Strange thing about Pagerank

Pagerank is the proprietary method by which Google determines the relevance of your site to search results. The higher the Pagerank, the more often your site will appear for relevant searches.

I noticed today that the Pagerank of letterneversent.com is 4/10, while the PR of www.letterneversent.com is 5/10. That’s weird, but I guess Google does that because you can’t just assume that the “site.com” is the same as “www.site.com”. Occasionally, this is not the case.