Sunday, August 18, 2013

Apple should get into the bus manufacturing business (for example)

Okay, maybe not bus manufacturing, but the point here is broader than that.

I've spent about a quarter century in the transit business, 14 years of that as a bus driver. I've driven vintage GMCs, Mercedes, and Carpenters, and new-at-the-time Blue Birds (they used to make transit buses) and Gilligs. That phase, driving, ended in 1997, but since then I've mostly gotten around by bus and bring that experience as a driver to the table in evaluating the buses I've been on as a rider.

To distill that experience into a single observation, it seems to me that bus manufacturers must have a difficult time hanging onto good engineers. (If you're an engineer, working for a bus manufacturer, how many resumes have you sent out in the last year?)

Bus manufacturers are primarily two things: they actually build the coaches or have them built to spec, possibly starting with a purchased frame, and they act as systems integrators, incorporating major components like engines and transmissions as well as minor components like signage and security systems, delivering it all as a package.

Each of these components may have troubles of its own, but in addition to that there are typically problems with the integration of components, and during the break-in period a good deal of debugging must be done before the buses are really ready for service.

In addition to the above, the underlying technology is on the cusp of change, with electric drive having become a practical, affordable alternative to mechanical drive, and rapid progress in battery and supercapacitor technology, as well as sensors, controllers, and electronics of all types. The list of potential improvements is practically endless, but the pace at which they are actually finding their way into each year's new models is embarrassingly slow.

This is a situation ripe for an Apple-style intervention, much as they intervened in the cellular industry with the iPhone, setting the bar higher for the industry as a whole.

It might be a bigger deviation from their core business than Apple would care to make, and there might be another company better positioned to step in, but that notion of intervention still applies.

For Apple such a move would have a profound effect on their brand, assuming they were to use "Apple" in this context. (Note that they don't with FileMaker, which is much closer to their core business.) Initially it would be incongruous, but over time people would come to think of Apple as an approach rather than as a product range, so it might actually be beneficial. Moreover, it would be bold, and people admire boldness.

With respect to Apple, the real point here is that one shouldn't count out the possibility of them doing something as surprising as getting into bus manufacturing, because it isn't a safe assumption that they won't, and the sluggards in whatever industry they do move into had better sharpen up their game if they don't want to be left in the dust.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

society (a.k.a. government) has an obligation to ensure necessary basic research

Society has an obligation to ensure necessary research for which there is no profit motive, or for which the profit motive acts to distort the outcome of the research. Note that I did not say an obligation to fund such research, although that will frequently be the only way to make sure it happens.

In some cases, of course, such as research into MS or cancer, government needn't foot the entire bill, since private donations are significant, but for basic science where it isn't yet known whether any practical application might result, and especially for the investigation of potential collateral effects of developments which have moved into the realm of privately funded applied research, the onus is upon government to take the initiative, in the latter case because companies which stand to profit from the deployment of novel products cannot be trusted to investigate whether that deployment should be allowed.

Take, for instance, the effects of neonicotinoids on bees. How much can you trust studies saying that such concerns are overblown, when those studies have been paid for by the companies which profit from the sale of neonicotinoid-based products.

On the other hand, if the burden for such investigations into collateral effects were to fall entirely on government, that would leave no incentive for the companies involved to constrain their submissions to a likely few. Continuing with the chemical example, they might submit every compound they were able to synthesize and bog down the system to the point that there weren't enough qualified people on the planet to conduct the needed research. So at least some of that cost should be borne by those who stand to profit.

Moreover, it makes sense that the entire cost of determining whether a product should be allowed on the market should be paid for out of profits rather than taxes, so perhaps government should conduct whatever research is needed and then bill the company submitting the provisional product. To take this one step further, perhaps the payment of that bill should take the form of company stock, at market value, so the more often a company proposed a new product, necessitating a new round of research to assure the safety of that product, the more it would become publicly owned. In some cases, of course, the government could end up owning the company, since the cost of conducting the necessary research might exceed the company's market cap.

No doubt this would dramatically slow the introduction of new products to market, particularly in the chemical industry, and, at least in that case, that would be a welcome result. We need to be much more careful than we've been in the past with regard to what we introduce into our bodies and into the environment, taking the time to investigate collateral effects before allowing a new product onto the market.

Perhaps it is only in the chemical industry that such a process might be needed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Larry Ellison displaying projected grief

Apple once pushed Steve Jobs out, and paid a steep price for doing so. More recently Steve Jobs was forced to resign as CEO by a terminal illness, leaving behind a team that understood and loved him. These situations are only superficially similar.

Larry Ellison, on the other hand, has never had to deal with life without Steve since first making his acquaintance, thirty-some years ago. It is understandable that he would want to attribute the success of Apple entirely to Steve Jobs, but in doing so he discounts the possibility that Steve may actually have managed to make himself unnecessary to that success, something he was clearly aiming for in his last few years.

Apple's continuing success is a tribute to Steve's foresight and understanding of the schlock-intolerant collaborative process, which he endeavored to infuse deeply into the way Apple works.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

computing's present as the past's future

Apple innovation not stalled, just reconfiguring

It must be pretty hard to step in behind Steve Jobs and try to pick up where he left off. Try as he did to get his management team to focus on each other instead of on him, and despite his decision to step down from the position of CEO several months before his death, he remained the charismatic leader right up to his last breath, and his death left a large vacuum, an ‘implosion zone’ if you like, because those nearest him had to relearn how to get things done at Apple in his absence.

Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, doesn't claim to be nor try to be (except maybe for the first year, when on stage), but he's a strong leader in his own right, with a deep understanding of how Apple came to be what it is today, having been there in charge of operations for very nearly the entire time since Jobs returned to the company and through most of the events that resulted in its turn-around. Moreover, he is well suited to the sort of team-building the company desperately needed in the wake of Jobs's death, and continues to need as older managers retire and new ones are promoted, hired, or brought in through acquisition.

The current pause in the stream of new products follows Jobs's last few months by two years, approximately one development cycle, so it shouldn't be a surprise, nor particularly disturbing given that all observers were then aware that the company was going through a very hard time.

If you take the date of Scott Forstall's removal from the equation as an indication of how long it took to get a new groove going, it's been about a year, and, again invoking the very rough two-year development cycle, we should begin to see the fruit of that in about another year. Projects that reach market before then will, most likely, have already been in the pipeline at the time that Tim Cook took over as CEO.

Phil Schiller's "can't innovate anymore, my ass!" comment right after showing off the new Mac Pro design at WWDC, should be taken not only as pride in that product but also as an expression of confidence that Apple's management team has found a new groove and that the new Mac Pro is just a hint of things to come.

Apple doesn't need a new charismatic leader to try (and inevitably fail) to take Steve Jobs's place; the memory of him is still too fresh and vivid for that. It needs a steady hand at the helm as it continues to reinvent itself and weather the various distractions and disruptions that have been strewn in its path. Tim Cook is the right man for the job. If you think you could do better, you're fooling yourself.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

w/o FRAND, standards essential patents = license to steal

When an industry goes with a standard, all players in that industry are under heavy pressure to comply with it.

As the effort to settle on an important standard nears its conclusion, there'll frequently be a race among those in a position to do so to stake out claims to the technologies that are necessary to the implementation of that standard, combined with lobbying of the committee charged with shaping the standard to go with a version that makes use of their patented technologies essential.

This isn't supposed to be a windfall, nor a club that companies can use to beat down competitors through high royalties. On a per piece basis, the income a company has a right to expect from royalties on standards-essential patents is modest. It is only as that income is multiplied by millions of pieces that it amounts to something significant.

When companies forget that their patents were made valuable by the decision of a committee, choosing to use their technology instead of someone else's, they endanger the ability of companies in general to agree upon standards, and the royalties they demand amount to blackmail.