Archive for January 2012
The travails of Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), the Ontario-based maker of the BlackBerry mobile messaging device, follow a pattern sadly familiar to technology-company watchers and admirers of classical tragedy. Brave innovation and superb execution create a new market, which the upstart dominates. But ultimately the very scale of the new champion’s success drags it down.
No tech company, least of all RIM, can be unaware of this cycle. The main lesson is in plain sight: Technology firms must be their own most formidable competitor. They must strive as eagerly as their rivals to displace their own commanding technologies. If they don’t, somebody else will.
The lesson may be clear, yet applying it is almost impossibly hard. One reason is that the bigger the initial success, the greater the reluctance to dismantle it. On Jan. 22, RIM proved the point. Its formerly class-leading, class-creating products have been failing in the new market for smartphones. Consumers and businesses are dumping their BlackBerrys for Apple Inc.’s iPhones or smartphones powered by Google Inc.’s Android operating system. RIM’s belated effort to market an iPad competitor was a costly and embarrassing flop.
Revenue (RI1) and profit have slumped and investors have hammered the share price. Earlier this week, RIM announced that its founders and co-chief executive officers, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, were stepping down. But the new CEO, Thorsten Heins, is a company insider who promptly affirmed his commitment to the founders’ vision.
What leads technology innovators astray is the idea that market dominance, once achieved by their own disruptive technologies, can be guarded from future disruption. This complacency is understandable because great innovators experience their sector’s barriers to entry firsthand. Economies of scale, the power of established networks, and the salience of industrywide standards and platforms make it hard to break through. However, the force of a sufficiently powerful innovation can overcome these barriers. And here’s the point: the next sufficiently powerful innovation is always on its way.
RIM created valuable proprietary technologies. The particular way BlackBerrys connect to mobile networks was its main strength because it allowed the devices to work more securely and corporate IT managers to exert the control they desired. These benefits were overwhelmed, however, by the amazing ease of use and range of applications offered by newer smartphones.
RIM was too concerned about defending the technologies it had created, and not concerned enough about giving users of its devices the best possible experience — a strategy that could have meant surrendering its previous advantage.
Eastman Kodak Co., which filed for bankruptcy this month, is the classical instance of this syndrome. A paradigm-shifting innovator — in the 19th and 20th centuries, that is — Kodak led the development of film-based photography, established overwhelming presence in its burgeoning new market, and for decades reaped profit accordingly.
Sadly, Kodak can also fairly claim to have invented digital photography, the technology that destroyed film. But with a near-monopoly to protect, the company grew that business too tentatively. In a way, it wanted digital to fail. It rested on its laurels and the power of its brand.
Newcomers with less to lose arrived and swept its business away. Fujifilm Holdings Corp., its Japanese competitor, is one such rival. Less wedded to past success, it innovated across a wider range of technologies and embraced digital photography more wholeheartedly. Fujifilm is still a successful business, whereas Kodak is bust.
Will Microsoft Corp. one day be another Kodak? It’s possible. Microsoft still has a hugely profitable near-monopoly in its Windows operating system to defend, and has been an unimpressive innovator in technologies, including smartphones, which now threaten to challenge it. Compare that with Apple, which began its recent startling run with no similar grand success to inhibit it. That, by the way, has now changed. Today, Apple has its own platforms to defend and is no longer led by one of history’s most instinctively disruptive bosses.
Examples of wholesale corporate reinvention — of shattering competition that works from the inside out — are few and far between. In the technology sector, International Business Machines Corp. comes to mind. In its 100-year history, the company has been a serial self-reinventor: from mechanical tabulating machines to computers, from mainframe computers to personal computers, from computing machines to computing services. Transitions as demanding as the one that leveled Kodak have been taken in stride, not once but repeatedly.
Paradoxically, innovation for its own sake has not been the animating spirit of IBM, one of the world’s most innovative companies. Instead, it has been the desire to build and keep relationships with customers. That is worth pondering. Technologies come and go, but you always need customers. The watchword might be: Put their needs first, then innovate without mercy for their sake, not your own.
via Innovate Without Mercy Is the Lesson of RIM’s BlackBerry: View – Bloomberg.
A fiery debate has broken out over an issue many thought had long been settled: Japan (JGDPAGDP)’s economy is sliding toward irrelevance.
The freshest evidence, reported earlier this week, is the first annual trade deficit in 31 years. It means, at the very least, that the huge pool of domestic savings that Japan uses to finance its staggering national debt might instead start going to support a trade deficit, an ominous sign.
Not necessarily a problem, says Eamonn Fingleton, a long- time observer who recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined “The Myth of Japan’s Failure.” His argument that Japan is a model worth emulating generated a huge buzz. So much, in fact, that it prompted a rebuttal from Nobel laureate and Times columnist Paul Krugman, who’s considerably less enamored with Asia’s No. 2 economy. Fingleton then rebutted the rebuttal.
Who’s right? I’m more in Krugman’s camp than Fingleton’s. Japan’s toxic mix of too much debt, too little growth, too many old people and too few babies will end badly if Tokyo doesn’t get its act together.
It’s important, though, to highlight where Fingleton is right. Japan is pretty close to a model society. It is an incredibly safe, clean, efficient, predictable and consistently quirky place for an expatriate to reside. Japan is reasonably egalitarian, its people have one of the highest standards of living and enjoy the longest life spans, and its cities feature the best infrastructure anywhere. On a more superficial level, Japanese cuisine arguably blows away all others.
It’s worth noting that, in some ways, the U.S. only wishes it could become Japan someday. All the chatter about “Japanization” takes on apocalyptic tones: lost decades, debilitating debt levels, zero interest rates forever, financial chaos and existential despair. Although those worries are valid, Japan never unraveled the way skeptics expected.
Crime didn’t skyrocket, homelessness didn’t explode, Arab Spring-like social instability never materialized. Workers and companies merely adjusted, living off their savings. Japan brought a whole new meaning to the concept of muddling through.
Could the U.S. pull off what Japan has? I doubt it. The key to Japan’s ability to withstand 20 years of stagnation is roughly $15 trillion of household savings. Many Americans couldn’t live two months without a paycheck. Japan, by contrast, is anything but a basket case.
Yet here is where Fingleton’s argument falls apart. In 1995, he published “Blindside: Why Japan Is Still on Track to Overtake the U.S. by the Year 2000.” Today, the real blindside among Japan bulls is thinking that what worked for Japan yesterday will work tomorrow.
Since its asset bubble burst more than 20 years ago, policy makers have worked frantically to keep the postwar boom alive. For years, pundits fretted about Japan’s zombie companies. The real zombie is Japan’s economic playbook.
The only reason Japan has any growth can be traced to its growing public debt, the world’s largest relative to the size of the economy, and the free money provided by the central bank. The economic equivalent of steroids is what holds Japan Inc. together, Krugman argues, not its organic vitality. To flourish, Japan needs to ease regulations, tap its female workforce and liberalize immigration. Lawmakers are doing none of the above.
There’s still a powerful aversion to change, and herein lies the nation’s Achilles’ heel. The Olympus Corp. (7733) scandal showed how corporate cronyism safeguarded an insular old-boys club. The radiation leaking from Tokyo Electric Power Co. reactors in Fukushima was a reminder of how dangerously top-down Japan is in a bottom-up economic world.
via Pesek: Krugman Take on $12 Trillion Question Rings True – Bloomberg.
A study published last August by the UN Environment Programme found that current agricultural trends are destroying the world’s natural resources, particularly its water supplies. Reversing this trend would require integrated land-use planning that coordinates decision-making for farming, biodiversity, water management and air pollution, according to the study.
Another report from the UN – its latest World Economic and Social Survey, found that to stop deteriorating land conditions and depleting natural resources, the world would have to move away from large-scale, intensive agricultural systems as they exist today. Instead, smaller scale farms in developing countries should be improved and expanded using ‘green’ technology that minimised the use of water, energy and chemicals, noted the report.
Scientists urge countries to adopt ‘climate-smart’ agriculture | Eco-Business.com.
For a writer, nothing beats the romance of seeing your work in high-quality print. No screen can compete with the silky feel of the paper, an excess of glossy photographs and that special smell of a new page.
Peecho, which just raised $750,000, lets visitors to a website or application transform pixels into print by clicking on its embedded print button. The print button connects to a cloud of print facilities all over to world which can produce any chosen magazine, photo album, poster or book.
Founders Martijn Groot and Sander Nagtegaal met at photo book printers AlbumPrinter which ran huge printing facilities churning out 16,000 photo books a day, each one different. “We saw that people were telling their own story in digital media,” says Groot, “but still wanted physical products.”
Most online content is not print ready. “PDF doesn’t have a spine,” says Groot. There is a bewildering range of digital publishing file formats. This is the reason that there are plenty of sites that let you print a photo album or maybe order a magazine on demand, but most services only print one type of product via a single print facility.
Peecho connects to a cloud print network of specialised printing facilities all over the world and aggregates orders from different customers. Most print facilities currently have excess capacity and Peecho can connect a new facility within 2 weeks, a process that would formerly would have taken months. The company takes a markup of each order on top of the wholesale printing price and also provides a white-label solution.
Most of the sites and applications which currently use the print button have never had print products as part of their offerings. Peecho will launch a service in February with digital publishing platfom Issuu, which has 50 million readers and adds 201,000 new titles every month. A visitor will be able to choose to print a magazine, paperback or hardback in color or black and white.
Only about 5 percent of Issuu’s content is currently available in print. “A lot of titles are never published in print because the volume isn’t large enough,” says Groot. That makes Peecho the long tail of print publishing, or as Groot calls it, “professional printing for the masses.”
On-demand printing is still more expensive than off-the-shelf. A supermarket magazine which costs $5 might cost $7 dollars to print on demand but Groot expects prices to drop as volume increases. While Peecho’s customers are still mainly digital publishers, social media services like Walnuts, which creates books based on Facebook content, are increasingly offering print products.
Groot claims that while there are competitors in different sectors, for example Fotomoto to print photographs for professional photographers, no other company covers multiple print formats and facilities.
Peecho’s new funding comes from Peak Capital and DHG Holding, B.V. and will mainly be spent on expanding the company’s global sales force and scaling up the business. The company is based in Amsterdam, has 4 employees and was founded in 2010.
via Peecho’s “License to Print” nets it $750,000 in funding | VentureBeat.
The so-called “town and gown” relationship between cities and universities has become increasingly important in recent years. As universities contribute more and more to the local economy through research, reputation and building, they’re seen not only as educational and cultural institutions, but economic development tools. But how much should cities rely on universities?
This essentially was the question posed to four university professors at a panel discussion in Los Angeles. Hosted by Zocalo Public Square and moderated by The Chronicle for Higher Education editor Jeff Selingo, the event asked whether universities can save cities.
“We really can’t believe that universities can save cities,” said Gene Block, chancellor at the University of California Los Angeles. He argues that even though universities contribute to a city’s culture and economy, they can’t be fully relied upon to solve major foundational problems should they arise.
And so far they haven’t, according to Rice University President David Leebron.
“I don’t really see it so much as a question of whether universities can save cities. Cities generically aren’t really in any danger,” Leebron said. “The real question, I think, is can universities make our cities more competitive, and more competitive on a global scale?”
Leebron said universities can play a major role in helping cities provide jobs and education that attract people and businesses from all over the world.
“That’s both in terms of what they can contribute to the economic advancement of the city, but also importantly what the universities contribute to the quality of life in the city and the quality of governance in the city,” Leebron said.
Arizona State University President Michael Crow said that universities will continue to be a part of ensuring a city’s economic success, but also that they will be a key part of a wider scale regional economic cohesiveness. He points to the concept of megapolitan regions, in which ten major clusters of metropolitan areas in the U.S. are expected to be home to about 80 percent of the country’s future population.
“The role of the universities in each of them is not to save the cities, because they are what they are,” Crow said. “It’s whether or not in the United States the universities can be facilitative of our megapolitans being competitive and at the same time have some concept of economic justice in the way that they evolve.”
The university heads pointed to some of the benefits they bring to the community, such as an increased involvement in K-12 education. But they also touched on the more physical side of university building projects. University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias pointed to a massive mixed use project the university is pursuing right off campus in South L.A. It will be the largest redevelopment project in the history of that part of town.
And though the university clearly is a developer, it’s not only a developer, according to Nikias.
“This university is in the business of educating people and doing research. We’re not a real estate company,” Nikias said.
Unsurprisingly, the four university heads spun their relationship with their cities in a positive light. None were willing to argue that their cities wouldn’t survive without them. But the link between the two is undeniably powerful. And as these universities and the knowledge-based economy they enable become more important, the interrelationship between universities and cities will become even closer.
via Do Cities Need Universities to Survive? – Jobs & Economy – The Atlantic Cities.
“David Eagleman is now Dr. Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, and one of his specialties is exploring how our brains perceive and understand time.
Several years ago, motivated in part by his childhood plunge, David started studying the way our sense of time distorts in crisis situations. He has gathered a huge number of stories from people who have survived falls, car crashes, bike accidents, etc. Everyone, he says, seems to say the same thing: “It felt like the world was moving in slow motion.”
But what is really going on? David started to think that maybe, in a crisis, the brain goes into a sort of turbo mode, processing everything at higher-than-normal-speed. If the brain were to speed up, he thought, the world would appear to slow down. This would work just like a slow-motion movie; in a slow-mo shot of a hummingbird, for example, you can see each individual wing movement in what would otherwise be just a blur.
Taking The Plunge
So David decided to craft an experiment to study this “slow-motion effect” in action. But to do that, he had to make people fear for their lives — without actually putting them in danger. His first attempt involved a field trip to Six Flags AstroWorld, an amusement park in Houston, Texas. He used his students as his subjects. “We went on all of the scariest roller coasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches, and had a great time,” David says. “But it turns out nothing there was scary enough to induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.”
But, after a little searching, David discovered something called SCAD diving. (SCAD stands for Suspended Catch Air Device.) It’s like bungee jumping without the bungee. Imagine being dangled by a cable about 150 feet off the ground, facing up to the sky. Then, with a little metallic click, the cable is released and you plummet backward through the air, landing in a net (hopefully) about 3 seconds later.
SCAD diving was just what David needed — it was definitely terrifying. But he also needed a way to judge whether his subjects’ brains really did go into turbo mode. So, he outfitted everybody with a small electronic device, called a perceptual chronometer, which is basically a clunky wristwatch. It flashes numbers just a little too fast to see. Under normal conditions — standing around on the ground, say — the numbers are just a blur. But David figured, if his subjects’ brains were in turbo mode, they would be able to read the numbers.”
via Why A Brush With Death Triggers The Slow-Mo Effect : NPR.
According to other studies, apes are not the only animals to display laughter-like characteristics. Dr Jaak Panksepp specialises in studying animal emotions at Washington State University. Using high-frequency detector equipment, he recorded rats and discovered that they produce ultrasonic chirps, particularly when they appeared to be playfully interacting with each other. The more he studied the rats’behaviour, the more he began to ponder whether the chirping sounds had a purpose. Then he had an idea.
“One morning I came in and I said to one of the grad students: ‘Let’s go tickle some rats’,” he explains. “I picked up a rat and began to tickle it, moving my fingers rapidly all over the animal’s body.” As he did this, he recorded the sound the rat made. It was the same noise as the chirps he had recorded previously but was louder and more consistent with a familiar, dynamic rhythm. “I thought, ‘My God, what if that sound is laughter?’,” says Panksepp. He repeated the experiment with several rats and each time the noise he recorded was the same. And on several occasions, when the tickling stopped, the rat followed his hands, as if wanting more. Although the sounds the rats made showed all the characteristics of laughter, Panksepp is careful not to label it as such. “A lot of people don’t like that word. Giving human qualities to animals is a no-no, since we are closer to the angels than the other creatures of the world,” he says.
This reverential view of the humanness of laughter is mirrored in Aristotelian philosophy. The ancient Greek scholar believed that it is not speech, conscious thought, culture or opposable thumbs which separate us from the beasts; it’s laughter. He wrote that when a baby emits its first laugh, it is transformed from a human into a human being, describing the process as “human ensouling”.
From those first baby giggles, we begin to use laughter until it becomes a communicative Swiss Army knife which can be utilised to berate others or make them feel good. It can be used to make us popular and it can be used as an emotional release mechanism. While we are born with the physical ability to laugh, the capacity to utilise it as a social tool is something we learn. And in order to do this, we need to develop a sense of humour.
Stephanie Davies, the author of Laughology: The Science of Laughter and a behaviourist, is one of the country’s pre-eminent laughter experts. A former stand-up comedian, she studied the science of laughter and founded Laughology, a unique enterprise which teaches individuals in the public and private sector how to enhance their potential through laughter and humour.
She explains the distinction between the two: “Laughter is a response; it’s usually the outward manifestation of humour but doesn’t always have to be about something which is funny. It can be used to fit in to a social situation or it can be a way of coping with a situation.” Humour, she says, is simply a system for processing information – so it changes in us all the time, depending on factors such as age and situation. “Different factors impact on how people develop a sense of humour,” Davies says. “A child knows that laughter is positive and learns that actions which get a laugh are positive. He or she will repeat those actions or mimic them from other people and start to develop an awareness of humour based on the reactions of those around them.”
And while laughter has altered through evolution, humour has also evolved and continues to do so through cultural change. What was funny 30 years ago isn’t always funny today, because our understanding of the world changes over time. In the Seventies, the casual racism of television comedies such as Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was perceived as funny because casual racism itself was acceptable. People were allowed to laugh at it. Today, society has evolved to understand that racism is not funny, so we are less likely to laugh.
For such an integral facet of humanity, the academic study of laughter and humour is still a relatively new field. Increasingly, however, experts are beginning to investigate the personal and social benefits of laughter.
via The best medicine: The power of laughter – Healthy Living – Health & Families – The Independent.