Technology through the eyes of a baseball fan

Ichiro SuzukiOver the summer I attended a baseball game at Seattle’s glorious Safeco Field.

The Mariners hosted the White Sox and it was a brilliant match of what’s known as “small ball,” in baseball parlance.

This style of play is similar to current trends in the technology industry.

Small ball is all about offence and constant movement. There’s a lot of hit and run plays, base stealing, and constant pitch-by-pitch strategy. There’s rarely a home run or even a big hit. Small ball is all about getting your runners home, one by one.

This is my favourite style of baseball. It’s fast, intelligent, and exciting. While a big hit by Barry Bonds is certainly a site to behold, those moments don’t come around much.

Instead, with small ball it’s all about constant bursts of action that can take place anywhere on the field. You never know what to expect, and you never know who will commit a key play.

The technology business is deep in a small ball era that’s a lot like this: things are moving fast, new trends are emerging, and you never know where the next big advancement will come from.

This is very different from the monotonous years that were owned by the heavy hitters.

Through the 90s we waited patiently for sluggers like Microsoft and Dell to step up to plate and knock one out of the park.

The infrequent, major releases of new versions of the Windows operating system are classic examples of this style of game play.

The focus of those home run years was on colossal product releases that were forced upon users whether they really liked them or not.

The last few years have been all about small, fast plays that have allowed fleet-footed players, inspired by the grassroots open source software community and enabled by the internet, to sneak past those hulking, steroid-driven spotlight-seekers.

The current small ball mentality is all about keeping users happy by satisfying their wants and needs directly in small, incremental steps.

Dell recently learned all about small ball the hard way.

Through the 90s Michael Dell built his namesake into a lean, mean, home run machine that literally took over the computer hardware industry.

The company was famous for its highly efficient system that delivered an endless stream of clone PCs to desktops around the world.

It didn’t matter what kind of computer you wanted.

You got whatever Dell produced, which was generally black and boxy.

Michael Dell, figuring he’d build the perfect home run machine stepped out of the CEO role at Dell Computers in 2004. His big shoes were filled by Kevin Rollins, a loyal disciple dedicated to carrying the Dell way on in perpetuity.

Nobody seemed to notice, however, that the small ball era was in full swing.

Consumers were demanding more than just those stoic Dalekesque corporate hand-me-downs.

They wanted something for their homes that didn’t remind them of the cubicle farm they spent their day in.

They wanted cool machines: the very antithesis of Dell’s home run products.

Apple kicked the small ball home computer game into high gear with their never-ending parade of crowd-pleasing iPods and super sexy laptops. HP and Sony are two other small ball hardware players.

Dell’s getting back in the game now, but they had to fire company man Rollins and pull Michael Dell out of early retirement to do it.

The company is currently hyping a colourful line of consumer-oriented laptops that stress how people use technology to express their individuality.

Microsoft is heading for some growing pains, too, that resemble Dell’s troubles. Founder Bill Gates is moving out the door and a bald microclone called Steve Ballmer is climbing into the driver’s seat.

Unfortunately, Ballmer’s approach to technology seems to be stuck in the 90s.

And that means, in a lot of ways, Microsoft is the Barry Bonds of software technology.

They can’t bunt, suck at base running, can’t steal, and are loathe to sacrifice anything, much less an out to advance a fellow player.

They are almost completely dependent on their home runs products like Windows when they play.

The small ball era demands frequent, market-responsive plays that keep consumers interested and engaged.

Nobody has the patience to spend years waiting for the slugger to knock it out of the park anymore.

Take Microsoft and Windows.

In 2001 they released their last home run, Windows XP. It took 6 years for them to hit another: Vista. (Some would dispute they swung too early, however, and pushed that one just outside the left field foul post.)

In comparison, since 2001, Apple has released 4 major versions of the Mac OS and Red Hat Fedora managed over 8 major upgrades to Linux.

While Windows users suffered through a long half-decade with a stagnant, decrepit XP operating system, Apple and Red Hat were responding to user demands with frequent, incremental improvements and fixes.

That’s small ball: strategic, satisfying plays that advances the team rather than one heavy swing that may or may not connect.

The benefits of small ball are clear: making a mistake has a minimal impact. You’re still in the game with runners on base.

A slugger’s errors have much greater consequence and are more prone to failure. Vista clearly wasn’t the home run Microsoft was aiming for and they seem to be out of at-bats.

Microsoft recently celebrated its 30th anniversary at Safeco Field. Over 17,000 employees crowded onto the field to take part in various activities.

Maybe they should have just sat in the stands and let the Mariners take the field.

They might have learned something about how to play some small ball.

 

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 28, 2007.

Is the iPod’s scrollwheel headed for the dustbin?

iPod touch“I read your column sometimes,” an old friend recently said to me.

“But, y’know, I hate the fucking scrollwheel.”

He was referring to a time I’d once praised the iPod’s unique control interface.

At first, I was offended. His statement was almost sacrilegious, in a sense. How dare he dis a cultural icon?

However, after some thought — and a near-death experience changing songs on the road — I began to share his feelings.

The iPod scrollwheel is pretty lame as a functional device control interface. In fact, it’s downright frustrating to use.

The main problem is not so much in the scrollwheel itself, however, but in the finger’s transition from it to the centre button.

When you lift your finger off the scrollwheel, the iPod has a tendency to register the movement as an extra scrolling motion. This typically results in the on-screen selection adjusting before you can click on the song you really want.

It often takes a few tries and can require significant concentration, resulting in the endless under-the-breath profanities.

It’s interesting how many people are willing to live with this level of functional deficiency in a device.

It’s representative of our cultural commitment to the iPod, really, and speaks volumes about the fashionable status that the iPod holds in our society.

We’re all willing to put up with a bit of functional frustration, as long as we can flash our nano in public periodically.

And Apple has built a modern empire on this conceit.

They own exclusive rights to that unique, flawed method of device control, and its form has become emblematic of the modern music industry.

Many other devices, including Microsoft’s Zune, have copied its style, but not its functionality, in an effort to steal some of the iPod’s shine.

Remarkably, even though they don’t scroll like the iPod, these other devices tend to be easier to operate than the iPod.

I was playing around with a Samsung cell phone the other day, for example.

It featured a large, round button that looked like a scrollwheel.

But, in fact, it was just a directional control that could simply move the on-screen selection either up, down, left or right.

The action was much more deliberate and precise than an iPod’s.

However, even as the gadget universe becomes saturated with iPod wanna-bes, Apple seems to be shifting gears and preparing to retire the scrollwheel.

In a recent refresh of their iPod lineup, the company introduced the iPod touch. Essentially just a big screen, the iPod touch offers almost no visible controls.

Instead, once the device is turned on you operate it by running your fingers over the screen. So if you want to scroll through a list of songs, you just run your finger up and down the screen.

I haven’t tried an iPod touch yet, but I did play with its famous twin sibling, the iPhone, a few weeks back.

The touch-based interface of the iPhone really leaves the scrollwheel in the dust.

The ability to control the device by gesturing with your fingers was a liberating experience.

There have been touch-screen interfaces before, of course.

My own Treo smartphone is a good example of one. But they’ve all been about replicating a button-based interface that you can generally only tap on with a single finger to control.

What’s effective about the iPhone and the iPod touch is that they are multi-finger gesture-oriented interfaces.

The control experience is much more organic and intuitive.

For example, if you want a photograph you’re looking at to get smaller on screen, you pinch it with your finger and thumb.

So, despite its iconic status, we’ll probably see the iPod scrollwheel slowly put out to pasture over the next year or so.

The future of the iPod and, of course, the copycat devices that will inevitably follow, will be all about big screens that you use your fingers to control by gesture.

And then we’ll all recognize my friend’s insightfulness as we look back and wonder why we ever put up with that damned scrollwheel for so long.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 21, 2007.

Yukon IT: A Victim of Geography?

Billy BraggAbout two decades ago folk singer Billy Bragg wrote a bittersweet love song that I suddenly find applies to my professional endeavours.

In “The Only One,” Bragg sings: “Here I am, a victim of geography/And, oh, you cannot hear me/Can anybody hear me out there?”

Never have I found more truth in these words than when I recently worked to promote a Yukon-based information technology product to the world.

Last week, thanks in part to the generosity of the Yukon Government’s Enterprise Trade Fund, I attended a conference that brought together some of Canada’s top innovators with investors and business leaders from around the world.

The Red Herring Canada 2007 conference in Montréal was all about introducing Canada’s most innovative entrepreneurs with the global technology business elite.

I went there with the clear intent of raising investment capital for a Yukon-based technology start-up I’m currently involved with.

So, while I was interested in the conference’s subject matter, I was even more interested in mingling with the dozens of other entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in attendance.

And I was bent on returning to the Yukon with some new cash that would drive our product ever closer towards commercial readiness.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated that geography would so negatively affect my pitch.

Our product was favourably and enthusiastically received by whomever I shared information about it with.

Most industry professionals at the conference intimated that it’s just far enough ahead of its time that it could potentially command a healthy portion of an international market that should mature in a year or two.

Entrepreneurial colleagues and investors alike were interested.

However, the fact that its development is based in the Yukon proved to be a significant hurdle when I tried to turn that interest into something more tangible.

Had our base of operations been Toronto, Waterloo, Montréal, Vancouver, or even Calgary, it’s very likely I would have come home with a cheque.

On at least one occasion, my pitch was enough to earn me a private meeting with an investor. I captivated about 2 dozen international venture capitalists with a brief presentation of our product.

However, the basic issue of geography always came up. I quickly learned to fear the moment someone would ask, “So, where are you based out of?”

My response was always enough to steal the gleam from even the most hardened VC’s eyes.

Some people openly wondered why we were developing our product in a truck.

Typically, the mere mention of the Yukon was always enough to dry up whatever interest may have been established.

On separate occasions, two investment managers made it clear to me that, “if you move to City X I could find you investment capital in a week.”

While they didn’t say it in so many words, they made it clear that moving IT investment dollars north would be out of the question.

Over the course of the three-day conference I found that I began to spend more time promoting the Yukon and substantiating its relatively modern infrastructure than I did pumping my own product.

The popular perception of the far North amongst even educated Canadians is of dog sleds, igloos, and can-can dancers.

This sort of image clearly bodes well for tourism operators, but for a technology firm such as mine, it’s a steep challenge that’s tough to overcome.

Many conference attendees refused to believe that we even had cellular phone access in the North.

Even more were surprised to hear we had a need for any more than one flight a week into Whitehorse.

And most Canadians still mix up Yellowknife and Whitehorse unapologetically.

One university-educated Calgary businessperson had to look up the Yukon on Google Maps when I insisted our capital city was not Yellowhorse.

Of course, what did I expect?

The Yukon is not recognized as a hub of exportable IT innovation.

The local industry is largely service-oriented and focuses on some very niche markets such as local government, tourism, and natural resources.

The innovative technology products that have been developed in the Yukon have largely been about the Yukon and have been designed to solve problems unique to northern cultures, climates, and economies.

The few technology products that have met with success in export markets are rarely linked back to their northern origins in any meaningful way.

And marketing northern IT is just plain impossible with so much effort and money being poured into our other, larger industries such as tourism and mineral extraction.

Such activities only serve to reinforce the stereotypes I battled.

The fact is, the Yukon is still very much about the older, more traditional physical and commodity-based economy.

The global trend towards an information-based economy has not settled into the northern sensibility yet.

And the world recognizes that.

Of course, none of this dissuades me from working towards my goal: to develop and market a major IT export product from the comfort and relative tranquility of my Yukon abode.

As Red Herring Canada’s Vice President, Alex Vieux, proclaimed at the opening of the conference: “Entrepreneurs are people who firmly believe that pigs can fly.”

Well, it’s just about time to rocket-launch some Yukon back bacon on the world, I’d say. After all, stereotypes are made to be broken.